Long Beach, Ca: The Making Of A Tourist Town

Long Beach, Ca: The Making Of A Tourist Town

Daniel Wegner

With a booming economy and vibrant tourism growth, the city of Long Beach has successfully improved its image after the downsizing of the aerospace industry and naval base closures.

Long Beach is quickly becoming Southern California’s rising star in the destination marketplace, offering hot new attractions such as the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Museum of Latin American Art, and attracting multimillion-dollar redevelopment and commerce growth.

Long Beach is one of the best examples of a town that has successfully redirected its destiny to become one of the most popular Southern California vacation destinations. For the new millennium, the Long Beach skyline will be dramatically transformed via a number of developments and renovations including: the completion of Queensway Bay, a spectacular waterfront redevelopment of unique shopping centers, restaurants, attractions, and architecture; a renovated Queen Mary, the retired ocean liner, with an adjacent Science Fiction Hall of Fame and concert hall; new hotels; an expanded Museum of Latin American Art; and a renovated downtown district.

The transformation of Long Beach is tied to its historic past. The origin of the Los Angeles basin can be traced by visiting either of Long Beach’s traditional California ranchos. Rancho Los Alamitos and Rancho Los Cerritos demonstrate rancho life in the 1850s and enable visitors to tour the original homes and gardens. Both ranchos originate from the Nieto Land Grant, the largest land grant ever bestowed in California. Rancho Los Alamitos and Rancho Los Cerritos are havens in the midst of city life and provide historical and educational programs.

When Long Beach city planners targeted downtown Long Beach for redevelopment, they had a solid vision: Bring in new retailers, restaurants, and nightclubs, yet maintain the downtown area’s rich history and ambience. Downtown’s main shopping boulevard, Pine Avenue, has since emerged as a Southern California hotspot for dining and entertainment. Visitors to the area will note that the historical art deco character of the district still remains. The Security Bank building, built in 1924, is now home to the Madison Restaurant, which preserved the original teller cages and high, wood-beamed ceilings. The Recreation Mosaic that once graced the entrance to the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium (no longer present) is now on the side of the Plaza parking structure. Z Gallerie, a contemporary home furnishing store is located in what was originally a Masonic temple (circa 1903), the oldest remaining building in downtown Long Beach. Before Hollywood emerged on the scene, Long Beach held the title of the entertainment capital of the world. By 1917, the thriving movie town established itself as a film industry leader and was the city’s main tourist attraction and employer. Balboa Studios, a popular filming venue from 1913-1918, is now part of the Museum of Latin American Art.

Hotel Occupancy at an All Time High

At the end of Pine Avenue, one can visit the former Breakers hotel and its amazing Sky Room restaurant, where Elizabeth Taylor spent her first honeymoon night after her wedding to husband No. 1, Nicky Hilton. Hotel occupancy, in general, is at an all time high. In 1999 the city posted the highest occupancy rate ever achieved and the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau booked record room reservations.

More than 30 years ago, Long Beach’s most recognized icon sailed into the city. Britain’s prized and most luxurious ocean liner embarked on her maiden voyage from Southampton in 1936 and streamed routinely across the Atlantic Ocean from Southampton to New York City. The Queen Mary was conscripted in 1939 and became a troopship that transported more than 5,000 soldiers at a time. Winston Churchill appointed the Queen Mary his seaborne headquarters and signed the D-Day invasion plans while secretly on board the ship.

With a new 66-year lease in place, the Queen Mary began a major, extensive, property-wide renovation and development of the 45-acre site, with the first phase starting in January 1999. The renovation includes the Hotel Queen Mary, meeting/banquet rooms, hotel lobby, exhibit hall, public areas, parking structures, and surrounding properties. The 365 staterooms of the Hotel Queen Mary are also being upgraded while maintaining the classic art deco styling and furnishings.

Since July 1998, the historic Queen Mary ocean liner has shared its Long Beach Harbor home with another maritime phenomenon–the Soviet-built Foxtrot-class submarine Povodnaya Lodka B-427. Commissioned in 1973 by the Soviet Government during the height of the Cold War-era, Povodnaya Lodka B-427, also known by the code name Scorpion, enjoyed a 21-year career before the Soviet Navy decommissioned her in 1994. The 3,000-ton vessel moved from Sydney, Australia, to Long Beach, where she is open for public tours through the next three years. Although there are a number of submarines on display around the world, the Scorpion is the only one that has been restored to its original operating battle condition.

Rainbow Pier/Rainbow Harbor are wielding quite an influence on the Queensway Bay Project that was created to re-establish Long Beach as the most popular waterfront destination in Southern California. Rainbow Harbor’s namesake–the Rainbow Pier, which jutted in a graceful arc into the Pacific Ocean, was a regular stop on every family’s Sunday drive in the 1940s and 1950s. This is the largest waterfront development in California history–300 acres of prime oceanfront property. The Queensway Bay Project is expected to attract more than five million visitors per year, create more than 3,500 jobs, and pump $270 million annually into the local economy. This massive addition to the Long Beach scene is not only transforming the city into a premier tourist destination; it’s also earning the city worldwide recognition for its amazing developments.

Weekly Construction Updates

From the beginning, the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Marine (DPRM), along with the mayor, city manager, and city council, were invited to the table for weekly construction updates. The DPRM gave key input into design and maintenance issues and made a commitment to a high “Disneyland” level of maintenance. The area is serviced 14 hours a day, and all the “little things” are taken care of to make for a positive visitor experience.

The first phase of the project, already complete, included grand openings at Rainbow Harbor and the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, a 156,735 square foot world class aquarium that showcases three regions of the Pacific Ocean: the Southern California/Baja region, the Northern Pacific, and Tropical Pacific. The Aquarium is a not-for-profit institution that strives to instill in its visitors a sense of wonder and respect for the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the living exhibits, it features a teacher resource center, classrooms, a restaurant, and a 4,000 square foot gift shop.

Completed in June 1998, Rainbow Harbor is the centerpiece of the project and is the home of tallships as well as up to 50 commercial vessels that offer dinner cruises and an assortment of tours. It is surrounded by a multi-level, 2,000-foot-long public esplanade and is the first modern harbor in the country to be situated within a landscaped park that is also used for numerous community festivals.

The DPRM has been a major player in the redevelopment of Long Beach as a tourist attraction. Winning the prestigious Golden Award in 1998, the city’s parks host numerous attractions that draw tourists from around the world. Working with other government, nonprofit, and private entities, the DPRM helps to facilitate large-scale events, such as:

* The International Sea Festival

* International Cultural Exchange Dragon Boat Festival

* California Outboard Racing Association Beach Fest

* Big Time Blues Festival

* Reggae Festival

* Beach Volleyball Association Professional Women’s Tour

* The Toyota Grand Prix

* Belmont Shore Christmas Parade,

and

* The Naples Island Boat Parade.

The Historic Ranchos (one operated by DPRM and the other operated by a private foundation) host special Holiday Living History programs.

The Long Beach Municipal Band has been supported by the city since 1909, and approximately 5,000 people attend these concerts each week during the summer season. In addition, the city-supported Long Beach Jr. Concert Marching Band represents Long Beach in state and national competitions. It has been voted the number one band in California for the past 30 years.

Visitors looking for a quiet retreat from urban life need look no further than the El Dorado Nature Center, Long Beach’s 102 acre nature preserve. Hikers can enjoy an extensive system of paved and dirt trails that wind around two lakes and a stream. Canopied trees shade the trails, birds sing, foxes cross the meadow, and herons and egrets perch bankside. The Nature Center is also home to a variety of trees and plant life including oaks, redwoods, and alders. The center of the Nature Preserve is a museum, providing visitors with an introduction to the environment through hands-on displays.

Those who want to find serenity in a beautifully landscaped setting can find it at the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. The Garden hosts a variety of events–many of which reflect Asian culture. Visitors from all over the world flock to this Oriental haven. But if the a freshly manicured green and the stroke of a nine iron are more to one’s liking, visitors seeking an outdoor experience are able to use any of the city’s five municipal golf courses.

Many Keys to Success

From beachside paths to river trails, cyclists can find their niche in Long Beach. Because of its extensive bike path system, the city became the site of the nation’s first commuter bike station. Modeled after successful European and Japanese examples, the Bikestation is a bicycle storage and rental facility that provides an important link to other modes of public transportation, including the Blue Line to Downtown Los Angeles.

Also emitting a European influence is Long Beach’s Shoreline Village. Modeled after villas found in a small Italian fishing village and a replica of an early California seaport, Shoreline Village includes unique dining, shopping, and waterfront activities for the whole family to enjoy. Merchants report that sales revenues have jumped an astonishing 80 percent since 1995 when renovations began, and 25 percent during the last full calendar year. This distinctive shopping district has enjoyed nearly 100 percent occupancy since early summer 1998. Renovation has been the key to success.

The former Hippodrome Skating Rink (built in 1920), and a once thriving movie studio, combined to become the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA)–the only museum in the West to focus exclusively on the contemporary art of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean–opened in 1996 and officially unveiled the development of the East Village Arts District in downtown Long Beach.

This 20,000 square foot building houses the Robert Gumbiner Foundation collection of Latin American art, galleries for temporary exhibitions, the museum gallery and store, a research library, and areas to accommodate lectures and performances. The 10,000 square foot building adjacent to the museum will soon become a multipurpose entertainment and performing arts center where special programs and events will round out MoLAA’s exhibition schedule. MoLAA anchors one corner of the East Village Arts District, an area of the city currently undergoing redevelopment as an arts community with studios, galleries, restaurants, and other art-related businesses.

California is known for its car culture, and the largest tourism event in Long Beach is the Toyota Grand Prix, which roars into town each April. Each year the downtown area is transformed into the world’s fastest beach party as North America’s most famous street circuit race erupts into a three-day festival of sunshine, sound, and speed. Automotive enthusiasts can also visit the Auto Club of Southern California’s huge lifestyle expo–a must-see bonanza of high-tech products and services in automotive, computers, travel, entertainment, and electronics … plus race-cars, games, and simulators.

When television and movie producer Barry Kemp of ABC’s retired sitcom Coach purchased the Los Angeles Ice Dogs in 1976, he had one stipulation: move the team to Long Beach. Thanks to the International Hockey League’s (IHL) approval, the team began playing at Long Beach Arena in October 1996. To welcome the Ice Dogs, the city made 3.1 million in improvements to the arena, including the addition of a permanent ice floor, a new scoreboard, and new seats.

A life-size mural more than 10 stories high, and 1,180 feet in diameter, covers the entire 116,000 square foot surface of the Long Beach Arena where the Ice Dogs play. It took four weeks and 3,000 gallons of paint to create it; and, when renowned environmental marine artist Wyland finished “Planet Ocean,” the Guinness Book of World Records certified it as the world’s largest mural. Since 1988, the Department of Community Development and the Public Corporation of the Arts have supported Long Beach as a city of murals, and 65 murals now grace public and private buildings throughout the city.

Long Beach has come a long way since the downsizing of the aerospace industry and the closing of the U.S. Naval Base, and tourism has emerged as its lifeline. By building on its past, the picturesque city has been able to re-invent its future. With its robust economy, Long Beach has capitalized on its assets and its history. The city’s natural and cultural roots have been revitalized, and the tourists are coming.

It has taken a concerted effort by city officials and others for this dream to come to fruition, but the hard work has been rewarding. Long Beach is telling and selling its story and is striving to provide an enchanting experience for visitors and residents alike, and it’s working. We in the field of parks and recreation have an important role to play in the tourism and economic development process while creating and maintaining a high quality of life in our communities. Building upon our traditions can be key for accomplishing a bright future. Long Beach is a preeminent example of how a bright future can be achieved.

How Long Beach, California transformed itself from a down-and-out casualty of military downsizing to a trendy tourist hotspot is a story parks and recreation agencies everywhere can learn from. The author, Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He is a member of Team Long Beach at the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and is a board member of the Friends of the Japanese Garden on campus. In addition, he has served on the Master Plan Advisory Committee for Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach and is active in civic and community affairs.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group