9-Month Centennial Extravaganza Only Days Away : Long Beach Puts Its Best Face Forward for Fete

Times Staff Writer

The logo is stylish.

Drawn abstractly, it depicts the curvy modern outline of a luxury ocean liner--perhaps the Queen Mary--starkly silhouetted against the backdrop of a dark-inked city. Beyond the ship, two white sailboats cut through an ocean of glassy yellow. And surrounding the scene, a bright red border draws one's eyes inexorably toward what seems to be a crisp view of urban life by a sea filled with fun.

The image started showing up around town about seven months ago, mostly on the sides of city buses. Gradually it spread, creeping onto the windows of local businesses and the walls of area supermarkets. Today it is everywhere: on restaurant menus, business cards, newspaper mastheads, napkins, coffee mugs, posters, commemorative pins, T-shirts, watches, visors, aprons, sweaters and flags.

It is the logo of the Long Beach Centennial. And beginning next weekend it will become even more visible as the city officially kicks off a celebration of its 100-year-old incorporation. It is to be a nine-month extravaganza that Adweek magazine recently dubbed "a marketing feast for a destination starving for an identity."

Original Idea Modest

Indeed, it was not always going to be a feast. Back in 1985 when a group of local business people first formed International City Celebration Inc., a private nonprofit corporation aimed at putting on the celebration, the idea was to mount a fairly modest event of a week to 10-days' duration. Then Joseph Prevratil, president of Wrather Port Properties and one of the corporation's founders, asked Peter Ueberroth, president of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, for the name of someone to head the Long Beach effort. Enter Dick Sargent, who had been vice president of operations under Ueberroth. A long-time resident, Sargent had a few ideas of his own.

"While (business) organizations might be inclined to donate a dollar to a short-term celebration," Sargent says he told the corporation's board, "they'd be more inclined to invest $10 in a program of long-term benefits."

Thus the centennial was born. Sargent, 53, was named president and chief executive officer of International City Celebration at a salary of $108,000 a year. His plan was adopted wholeheartedly by the board. And a campaign was begun to enlist the support of local businesses by appealing to their economic self-interest, as well as their sense of civic pride.

"Long Beach is still perceived as a sleepy little town," Sargent said. "Our desire is to use the centennial as a focus to try to tell regionally, nationally and internationally what Long Beach really is."

What Long Beach really is, he says, is a city in the midst of an economic boom with lots of office space for new mid-size businesses, a climate and location conducive to tourism and a host of hotels and restaurants eager to serve. In other words, a city with plenty of money to be made by existing businesses willing to promote its growth.

Apparently the pitch worked. In the year since Sargent's arrival, the centennial corporation has seen its budget increase from $15,000 in the bank to $1.8 million in cash and contributed goods and services. Those include complimentary airline seats, advertising commitments, hotel rooms, printing and design services and office supplies. About $200,000 came directly from the city, Sargent said, with the rest--$800,000 in cash and $1 million in goods and services--donated by the event's 130 corporate sponsors.

Three Categories

Those sponsors fall into three categories. "Major" donors include companies--such as IDM, Anheuser-Busch, ARCO Transportation Service and McDonnell Douglas--which have contributed $50,000 or more.

For $25,000, several companies became "exclusive" sponsors, meaning their goods or services are not duplicated by others in the same category. Among these are the Grand Prix Assn. of Long Beach, Memorial Medical Center, Ralph's Grocery Co., Century 21-Action!, Shoreline Village and Los Angeles radio station KBIG.

And somewhat smaller donors formed the "group" category whose contributions ranged from $22,000 from the Hyatt Regency hotel, to $525 from Maison de France, a small French restaurant downtown. (The Long Beach Press-Telegram is a major sponsor, with a $100,000 contribution; the Los Angeles Times is a group sponsor, with a $10,000 contribution.)

In return for their contributions, the businesses get the sanctioned use of the centennial logo, widespread mention in the event's considerable publicity blitz and participation in something loosely referred to by those involved as networking.

"Networking is important to most businesses," said Fortune Pritchard, co-owner of Flowers by Vickie, which has pledged $5,000 worth of floral services to the centennial celebration. "People see your work and see your name and you've sold yourself."

Explained Jean Louis Hlavaty, owner of Maison de France, which has been in business for only 14 months: "This gives us access. It opens doors to all the official events and gives us a way of marketing our business to a wide range of people. It was an ideal way to get connected with city officials. Our goal is to become a prominent restaurant in Long Beach and Greater Los Angeles."

Sargent says that only about 28% of his budget goes for administrative costs, including his own salary and those of his eight full-time staffers. The rest, he says, is being spent on promotional efforts. Those include broadcast and print advertising all over the world, as well as goods and services necessary to enhance the various centennial events.

Scheduled Anyway

Most of those events are things that would be happening whether or not there was a centennial. Included on the calendar--which has several listings for each of the next nine months--are regular performances of the city's ballet, opera and light opera companies, as well as the Long Beach Symphony; long-scheduled exhibitions at the Long Beach Museum of Art and the University Art Museum; an annual sea festival and carnival; the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the annual observance of Cinco de Mayo.

By focusing on existing events, Sargent says, he accomplishes two things. First, he keeps down overhead and contributes to local culture. And second, he promulgates the message that Long Beach is an interesting place that is host to worthy events all the time, thus fulfilling his promise to sponsors to enhance the city's image and bring more people to town.

Several local agencies have come forward to help in this mission. The Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Council recently sent out 2,200 press releases to travel, business and feature journalists worldwide suggesting various angles on the centennial story.

"We're using the centennial as a public relations program," said Terri Villa-McDowell, public relations director for the city-sponsored council which, in addition to the mailings, recently hired public relations firms in Phoenix and New York to help "get the message about Long Beach out using the centennial as a hook."

The Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce is planning to issue centennial discount coupons to be honored by area retailers in a major promotion of the event.

And the Seabreeze, a monthly newspaper published by the Downtown Long Beach Associates, plans to devote almost every cover from now through October to some aspect of the centennial celebration. "We've got to fill those offices and hotel rooms," said Sargent, referring to office space that has nearly tripled citywide in the last 10 years and hotel rooms that are expected by 1992 to have doubled in number from 1984.

Indeed, filling those offices and hotel rooms was one of the major themes of a document written two years ago that many centennial planners now point to as their bible. The Mayor's Task Force on Strategic Planning for the Year 2,000 listed among its recommendations a call for local businesses to develop a unified approach to promoting the city, a strategy Sargent sees beginning in the centennial.

But the plan has not been without glitches. Some feelings have been hurt and egos battered along the way.

One local gallery owner, for instance, had her feathers ruffled after agreeing to become an exclusive sponsor and finding out that her right to sell official centennial posters was not quite as exclusive as she had imagined. "It was a source of irritation," said Sandy Andazola, owner of Andazola's Gallery on Atlantic Avenue. As a result, she said, she downgraded her participation from "exclusive" to "group" sponsorship and now sells the posters along with several other local outlets.

And at least one faction in the city felt alienated enough by what they perceived as the centennial's "clubby big-bucks" character that they are planning an alternative celebration of their own. "We think they are excluding a lot of people by charging such high prices," said Karen Riley, associate editor of the Seabreeze and coordinator of the Long Beach Centennial Fringe Fest.

To make the anniversary more accessible, she said, her group is planning a six-month series of art, dance, music, poetry and theater happenings for which sponsorship will cost from $20 to $60. "Many artists couldn't participate in any other way because they don't have a lot of money," Riley said. "Why should you have to pay for the name centennial? It's our celebration and everyone should be able to participate if they want to."

For the most part, though, reactions to the official plans have been positive. So positive, in fact, that some organizers are jokingly toying with the idea of using a little-known quirk in Long Beach history to prolong the effects.

The city, it seems, was actually incorporated twice. The first time--in 1888--is what's being commemorated now. But only eight years later, according to William T. J. Harris, president of the Historical Society of Long Beach, the citizenry--spearheaded by a group of would-be saloon owners and drinkers angered by local prohibitions against alcohol--decided to disincorporate by a vote of 132 to 126.

On Dec. 1, 1897, Harris said, the city was incorporated again--this time with legal assurances that its residents would have access to booze. So an argument could logically be made for celebrating the Centennial all over again in nine years.

"If this one proves successful," says Sargent, "maybe it would be beneficial to have another one. Anything's possible."

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