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The Feeling is Mutual as San Diego Embraces Miss California Entrants

Times Staff Writer

If there is such a thing as love at first sight, San Diego appears to be so smitten by its new beauty contest.

“I think I speak for all of San Diego when I say that this ceremony signifies the desire of more than 1 million San Diegans to take an active role in this contest,” acting Mayor Ed Struiksma said Tuesday at the Community Concourse as he surveyed the 41 contestants in the Miss California Beauty Pageant.

This is the first time the event has been held in San Diego, and the entrants and city officials seemed eager to ensure that this first date develops into a long and profitable relationship.

For both parties, the stakes are high.

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The scholars--the Miss California competition is officially a scholarship contest--will compete for a $10,000 scholarship, clothes, jewelry, a full-length mink coat and a chance to represent California in the higher stakes of Miss America competition.

For the city, which stole the franchise from Santa Cruz this year, the contest is expected to yield millions of dollars in tourism and in statewide exposure from live television.

As a small crowd of pin-striped picnickers looked on, the 20-piece Navy Ceremonial Band serenaded as Struiksma and contest organizer Bob Arnhym exchanged congratulations in the official welcoming ceremony. Arnhym is executive director of COMBO (Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County).

And two dozen midshipmen in dress whites were on hand to escort the contestants from their seats to the podium.

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The midshipmen--from Naval ROTC programs at UC San Diego, the University of San Diego and San Diego State University--seemed rather pleased to have landed this particular detail.

“This is pretty good duty,” said Larry McElvain of SDSU.

Earlier Tuesday, the contestants toured the carrier Kitty Hawk, where they met with several fighter pilots. During the contest itself, the women will be escorted by Naval Academy cadets, according to Capt. Peter Litrenta, who is coordinating the Navy’s involvement in the contest.

“We’re just welcoming them into the community,” Litrenta said, adding, “The Navy is part of San Diego, too.”

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And this warm welcome was reciprocated by the entrants, who were sporting floral print dresses for the occasion.

“San Diego has opened up its heart to us,” declared the reigning Miss California, Lisa Davenport, who used the word “overwhelmed,” four times in her two- minute speech.

“This is not like the other beauty contests,” said Sharon Dolezal, a University of Southern California doctoral candidate who is representing Covina. “They’re concerned that you have an education and want you to grow as a person.”

For the last 62 years, Santa Cruz appeared to have a lock on the contest, which is awarded annually by the Atlantic City-based Miss America Pageant. But after several years in which the contests were marred by protests by local feminist groups, the national outfit got fed up with the hostile reception in Santa Cruz.

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“There, the atmosphere is essentially dominated by the student population, and they would hold demonstrations each year,” Arnhym said. “This is a family-oriented event, and we don’t want that kind of disturbance.”

San Diego area businesses have contributed thousands in goods and services. Dal Watkins, president of the San Diego Convention and Visitors bureau, estimates that the contest will bring in $2 million to city business. Finally, a condensed video of the contestants’ two-day, whirlwind tour of every major tourist attraction in the city will be aired during the contest.

Pointing to “an extremely receptive atmosphere” in San Diego, Arnhym expects this year’s competition to be trouble-free. Although protesters from Santa Cruz have vowed, in conjunction with local groups, to bring the protests here, Arnhym is confident that any disturbance will be kept to a minimum.

“We don’t need anyone trying to hold us up to public ridicule,” Arnhym said.

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