The state Coastal Conservancy on Friday approved the use of a $520,000 federal grant for a $1.1-million visitor's center in Imperial Beach.
Imperial Beach officials estimate the center, which will be built in the Tijuana River Valley estuary, will attract 75,000 people a year. The one-story building will include an educational laboratory, exhibits and administrative offices. Visitors can tour parts of the estuary, which is one of two national reserves in the state.
The remaining funds needed for the center are included as part of the proposed state budget.
State parks and Imperial Beach officials had been concerned about the center's future until early this week because of problems with the state Coastal Commission, which had to approve the proposal before it could be forwarded to the Coastal Conservancy.
In 1981, the commission had approved a master plan for the city's growing beachfront development that included the visitor's center. On March 23, however, the commissioners voted to use the center's newly acquired grant to alleviate some of the sewage problems in the 2,500 acres of the Tijuana River Valley, south of Imperial Beach.
After more than 75 Imperial Beach residents and officials objected, the commission reversed its vote Wednesday.
Both Imperial Beach Mayor Henry Smith and Coastal Commissioner David Malcolm called the matter a misunderstanding.
"My original concern was spending the million dollars to clean up the sewage coming across the border," said Malcolm, who was the driving force behind both of the votes. "I didn't want to spend the money on a visitor's center where you could stand and watch the sewage go by.
"What I didn't understand was that this center could make the city a better place to live and a better place to visit. It is an integral part of the beach development."
Malcolm said the commissioners changed their minds easily because before the March 23 vote, they did not receive any community feedback on the project.
The mayor, who supports the center, said he and the community had thought approval would be routine.
"The whole thing was a long battle and a misunderstanding," Smith said. "I think everyone thought the matter was routine. We will not make that mistake again. From here on out, we won't take anything for granted."
Smith said the $1 million would provide a completed center, but it would not even begin to alleviate problems caused by sewage that daily flows through the valley.
"We worked so hard for the approval of this center because of its educational value," said Patricia McCoy, a member of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Assn., which oversees the estuary. "Salt marshes are diminishing and they are really poorly understood resources. But they are also one of the richest resources.
"And as for the sewage problem, we can approach that in an educational manner from the center as well."