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Surf City tourism is mixed blessing

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Summertime vacationers lounging on hotel balconies in Huntington Beach can see more than just waves crashing on the city's 8.5-mile ribbon of sand. There are also likely to be paintball warriors, volleyball players, dirt bikers, surf pros and, improbably, snowboarders shredding man-made powder.

In Surf City, it seems, there are no lazy days of summer. The wide-open waterfront and thousands of parking spaces, coupled with the city's dogged marketing efforts, have turned Surf City into one long endless summer of athletic contests and other events.

There's also "Ocean Force," a reality TV smash chronicling Huntington Beach lifeguards' dramatic rescues.

The city's gotten so comfortable with selling its image that officials have agreed to install nine video cameras under the storied Huntington Beach Pier to beam live images to Hollister clothing stores nationwide.

The traffic congestion and logistical work these commercial ventures cause are minimal, city officials say, compared with the tourist dollars and national exposure they bring.

But try telling that to the locals.

All the out-of-towners clogging Pacific Coast Highway and hogging downtown parking spaces begin to wear on the nerves -- and for some, on the bottom line.

"The bigger the event is, the less traffic in my store," said Moe Kanoudi, owner of Main Street Eyewear & Boutique. "I'm used to it. We write those days off."

Locals aren't "going to go down and buy a dress or shoes or surfboards when it's a mob scene," said Steve McCormick, 50, a longtime Surf City resident.

The streets in front of McCormick's downtown-adjacent home get so jammed on some weekends that he puts out traffic cones to preserve a parking place for his own car. Added insult: the beer bottles and taco wrappers that partyers leave in his yard.

Litter aside, the Chamber of Commerce trumpets all the activity as a financial boon for the city, with the hotel bed tax alone pumping $6.5 million each year into the local economy.

"The marketing of Huntington Beach has had a direct, positive impact on [local merchants'] bottom line," said Perry Cain, executive vice president of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Bars and restaurants are mobbed on big weekends, and outdoor gear shops such as Huntington Surf and Sport see business spike as much as 20% with the crowds.

According to one study commissioned by the Conference and Visitors Bureau, annual visitor spending has ballooned to an estimated $350 million, up from $191 million seven years ago.

But in other ways, Surf City -- a nickname trademarked two years ago after a much-publicized legal battle with Santa Cruz -- is a victim of its own success. People complain about the downtown traffic. During beach events, too little parking hurts service-oriented businesses such as salons and dog groomers that rely on regular customers.

"Our locals don't want to come down," said Susie Smith, owner of Makin Waves Salon.

Residents know to avoid PCH and the pier on busy weekends. Even the police chief wonders whether the city needs to rein it in.

"I don't think more and bigger events are better for the city," said Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth W. Small.

The U.S. Open of Surfing, one of the largest events of the year, drew at least 340,000 people to the city last month and required 50 to 55 extra police shifts over a week.

The city recently approved a $55,000 consulting contract for an event-marketing study to "enhance its current image . . . and attract quality events."

"Defining what we want to be is a good thing," Small said, "so we don't just have more of what we already have."

It's not just the locals who lose out: The near-constant contests on the sand sometimes push out vacationers.

Room rates at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort jump by as much as 30% when the surfers come to town, said General Manager J.D. Shafer.

If half of the hotel's 290 rooms are taken up by contestants or event sponsors, "it very well could preclude somebody from booking because we could be sold out, or the rates [are] so high it's not in their budget," Shafer said.

But tourists who do snag a room love the extra buzz of watching the action from their balcony, he said.

"That's just an extra memory they can take with them."

Despite the aggressive marketing push, "the city doesn't just give anybody a free pass," said Donna Mulgrew, interim executive director of the Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Event coordinators are required to file a detailed application, which is checked for parking and security plans and to ensure that the gathering complies with Huntington Beach's municipal code.

City staffers aren't shy about tweaking problematic event plans: They moved the messy, high-speed paintball tournament farther down the beach after it outgrew its original home by the pier.

"It felt dangerous, in a sense," said Naida Osline, the city's special events supervisor. "It just was too big a mix of pedestrians, vehicles . . . a lot of moving components to it."

Osline said that about three dozen large events take place near the pier each year, but that there's more than enough shore to go around: "The beach is a natural resource intended to be open and available to the public."

Environmental advocates agree with that idea but say commercialization is increasing in Huntington and elsewhere, encroaching on public land.

"All of a sudden we're actually privatizing sections of the sand," said Steve Hoye, executive director of Access for All, a nonprofit group that promotes beach access. The proliferation of events on the shore is "taking a free, public resource and really cheapening it."

The state Coastal Commission voted last year to allow the AVP volleyball tour to charge admission, a decision that triggered a legal backlash.

Although most of Huntington Beach's surf-side events are free, the state Coastal Act does not directly address charging entrance fees, said spokeswoman Sarah Christie.

Rather, each event is considered individually; organizers must balance the Coastal Act's sometimes divergent policies promoting beach access and prioritizing recreation, Christie said.

And although Huntington Beach officials issue permits to use the city beach, those decisions can be appealed to state coastal commissioners, Christie said.

Most of the Surf City action takes place on Huntington City Beach near the pier. Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches to the north and south are quieter, with gatherings of families or low-key high school surfing contests.

"It's not our goal to program every space of the beach," Osline said. "It would be ridiculous."

Residents are "protective of their beaches; they're protective of their downtown," Mulgrew said. "There definitely are inconveniences at times; I think we're all willing to work with it."

"A very small minority would rather just be 'Mayberry R.F.D.' and not have any traffic impacts," said Mayor Pro Tem Keith Bohr. "You never have 100% of people happy of anything on this kind of scale. I think overwhelmingly it's a positive thing."

Longtime resident Pinkie Olson, 85, put a finer point on the grousing over the busy beach: "You have to be a fogy if you feel that way."

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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