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Ventura County

County to Toss Wharf a Lifeline

Retail: A deal to buy back leases would be the beginning of a five-year effort to revitalize a struggling section of Channel Islands Harbor.

June 23, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a tough six years for Joanna Steele, owner of a gift shop and art gallery at Fisherman's Wharf in Channel Islands Harbor.

Steele watched the wharf's outdoor fish market, dining areas, walkways and landscaping slowly slide into disrepair.

She watched dispirited tenants close up shops, one by one. And she watched nearly all the tourists disappear.

The most frequent question she hears is, "Where did everybody go?"

"You don't know how hard it is to keep a smile on your face when that's all we hear," said Steele, who has operated her tidy shop at the same location for 24 years.

If all goes as planned, Ventura County officials say, the retail center's death spiral will soon be halted.

In a rescue plan approved by supervisors last week, the county will buy back leases for Fisherman's Wharf and the nearby 271-room Casa Sirena hotel from owner Channel Islands Harbor Investment Co. The Harbor Department plans to offer the leases to a new operator willing to spend millions to rehabilitate the properties and keep them maintained.

Gross revenue at Fisherman's Wharf has dropped dramatically since 1995, from more than $4 million to $1 million last year.

County officials say the area's slide began in 1996, when Channel Islands Harbor Investment Co. took over long-term leases held by former Oxnard developer Martin V. "Bud" Smith. The Texas-based investors also took control of three harbor apartment complexes.

Since then, the hotel and wharf areas have fallen into disrepair and tenant vacancies have increased, county officials said.

"When Smith's leases were taken over by this other firm, they simply--for whatever reason--were unable to do the things that they should have done," said Supervisor John K. Flynn, whose district includes the harbor. "They lost a lot of subtenants. The harbor began to sink because of lack of vitality."

Channels Islands Harbor Investment officials were not available for comment, but evidence of the area's decline was clearly visible at lunchtime Friday.

The five-acre wharf's huge parking lots were nearly empty. A handful of visitors wandered the rows of colorful Cape Cod-style shops and restaurants. Two homeless men slept on the ground, beside cracked sidewalks and neglected planters.

Under the new deal, Fisherman's Wharf will revert back to county control as early as September. Channels Island Harbor Investment agreed to pay the county $150,000, which will be plowed back into the wharf area for cosmetic repairs, officials said.

In a second phase, the Casa Sirena hotel and the adjoining Lobster Trap restaurant will be put up for sale. County officials hope to attract an owner willing to invest at least $9 million to renovate the 30-year-old property.

In return for assigning the leases back to the county, Channel Islands Harbor Investment will extend 20-year leases on the profitable apartment complexes to 50 years.

Attracting a reputable developer to take on the aging properties could prove challenging, experts say. Rick Caruso, developer of the successful Promenade shopping center in Westlake, said applicants will look closely at the density of surrounding neighborhoods.

"It all comes down to the number of bodies that live in the area that the harbor draws from," he said. "And we also look closely at education and income levels. The higher the education level, the more successful we know the project will be."

Caruso said potential developers would probably ask for tax breaks and other concessions, if the project is not profitable on its own.

"Most of these fisherman's wharves don't do that well because they never have the anchor retail that draws the traffic in," he said.

County officials estimate it will take about five years to complete both phases of the deal. But the public should start noticing changes within a year, Flynn said.

"We now have the opportunity to make the harbor what it should be and what is has been--the jewel of Ventura County."

Diane Peisson agrees that the jewel needs polishing. On the way home from San Diego, the Bay Area resident and her family stopped at the Casa Sirena.

But they were disappointed with the condition of their $99 waterfront room, Peisson said.

"The deck was dilapidated. You could tell there was dry rot," she said. "I hope they fix it up because it's a beautiful setting and a good stopping point before L.A."

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