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A vestige of the past stands in path of Garden Grove's future

Travel Country RV Park, an aging trailer park whose residents have lived there for years, is located in the development zone where the City Council wants to build a 600-room hotel and water park.

July 20, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

It's tough living in the shadow of one of the most recognized tourist attractions in the world.

For decades, Garden Grove city leaders have tried to ride Disneyland's coattails by building their own tourist destination. There's been talk of a Las Vegas-like casino, a theme park on Latino history, a music-filled river walk; all died in the early planning stages. But that hasn't stopped city officials from putting tourism at the heart of Garden Grove's plans for the future.

Twenty -- even 10 -- years ago, those who traveled Garden Grove's portion of Harbor Boulevard to or from the Happiest Place on Earth in Anaheim would have passed storefront businesses in rundown shopping centers, cheap motels and fast-food restaurants. Today, those enterprises have almost all been replaced by hotels built mostly on land purchased by the city and financed in large part with massive tax breaks.

Most recently, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a new 600-room hotel and 3-acre water park on Harbor Boulevard -- despite the project's lack of financing.

But sitting figuratively and literally in the middle of Garden Grove's plans is an aging trailer park with residents who have lived in the city for years. Intended once upon a time as a stopover for RV owners looking to spend a couple of days exploring nearby tourist attractions, the Travel Country RV Park has morphed into a permanent community.

"The city has these grand plans," said Marina Limon, a 22-year resident of the park, "but where will they send us?"

That's a question city officials haven't yet addressed.

The city's promotional video for its redevelopment plan opens with a young family shouting with excitement on a water ride.

"This is the sound that Garden Grove city leaders would love to hear along a stretch of Harbor Boulevard called International West," says the voice-over. A few seconds later, the video shows city leaders visiting a soon-to-be-opened theme park in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"This is what it's all about," says Mayor Bill Dalton in the video, "tourist dollars that help ensure things are paid for so we don't have to look to the citizens to unfortunately raise taxes."

The site in the video, the Hard Rock Park, went bankrupt months after it opened. But city leaders are undeterred. They continue looking to build new hotels but also hope a theme park will someday be built.

Tourism-based redevelopment is the only option for a city that hasn't been able to bring in large amounts of sales or property tax, said City Manager Matthew Furtal.

"It's our best way to fund the things people want," he said.

"From a property tax standpoint, we're built out," said Furtal, adding that the same is true for retail. Auto dealerships are struggling, and restaurants and big box stores have been difficult to attract, he said.

"When you look at the retail centers in Garden Grove, they're fairly flat. We almost had a Wal-Mart, but that fell through. We lost a Mervyn's. . . . Restaurant sales were similar. We weren't attracting any new chain restaurants. In fact, we lost Black Angus," Furtal said.

Without tourist-oriented development, he said, "we can't continue to fund our police at the level we have, or we can't continue to maintain the parks and streets."

While they wait for the day when a major theme park developer shows interest, the city has quietly helped build a series of hotels using redevelopment money. In the last 10 years, the city has given at least $25 million in rebates to hotels willing to build in the city.

Some approved hotel developments and expansions are on hold because of the economy, but city leaders are eager to get started on the proposed water park, which, they say, is the perfect combination of tourist attraction and source of hotel tax revenue that city officials seek.

"It's different and unique," Furtal said. "It's one of those things we hope people will say, 'We must stay there, we've got to go see it.' "

But to make that vision a reality, the city must bulldoze Travel Country RV Park.

Located near Disneyland, the cluttered, broken-down park is a remnant of the old Harbor Boulevard -- home to dozens of low-income families, many of whom have lived there for more than 10 years.

As part of its redevelopment plan, the city purchased the property with the intention of demolishing it when the right project came along. In their eagerness to get the water park-hotel going, city officials recently offered residents $5,000 to leave. The city manager has acknowledged that the project could take up to two years to build -- and might not be built at all.

On a recent weekday, residents walked through the park pointing out problems they say the city has failed to address: potholes, broken lights and graffiti-marred walls.

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