"It was a year of disasters," said Redondo Pier shop owner Judy Milner, recalling the 1988 fire and ocean storms that destroyed nearly half of the horseshoe-shaped structure. "But we're hard-core pier people, so we survive and go on."
Milner's Pier Imports was heavily damaged when 20-foot waves, driven by an Arctic storm, rolled into King Harbor in Redondo Beach in January, 1988, and smashed into the 60-year-old pier. A few months later, in May, she and her husband, Chuck, lost four smaller shops in The Edge restaurant when a fire consumed that pier building.
To replace her lost outlets--and show her faith in the pier's future--Milner is remodeling the former Port of Spain restaurant into another gift shop. She said it will feature a mounted 16-foot great white shark.
The May 27 fire, which apparently started in storm-damaged electrical wiring under the pier, destroyed 16 of the 48 pier businesses, including the Breakers and Cattleman's restaurants. Damage to public and private property was estimated at up to $7 million.
It was the third disaster that year, including an April storm that dropped a 155-foot pier walkway into the ocean. No businesses were on that section, which was used for fishing and as a promenade.
The pier is part of King Harbor, where total damage exceeded $26 million. Recovery in the harbor so far includes the restoration of the Portofino Inn and Reuben's restaurant. The Blue Moon Saloon, which was destroyed, plans to rebuild.
After the pier was cleaned up, 90% of the businesses reopened. Merchants say their business has declined because of a widespread belief that the Redondo Pier no longer exists, and they say the pier and its lost sections need to be rebuilt.
"People saw these pictures on TV and in the newspapers showing the pier in flames and got the impression that everything was lost," said Randy Joe, owner of the Sunshine Kite Co. "It's taking a long time to get the word out that we're still here."
Joe said the fire last year destroyed his building and his stock of kites. "For a while there, I didn't know whether I'd ever get back in business," he said. Joe started the kite company 15 years ago, when he was only 19.
But a month after the fire, the city's Harbor Department set up a "Survivors Village" near the pier entrance. It provided blue-and-white tents from which Joe and several other owners of small businesses could operate until permanent structures were built.
"That made it possible for us to hang on," Joe said. "I worked really hard to get my customers back." Three months ago, he moved from his tent into a portable building that an architect friend designed for him.
Harbor Director Sheila Schoettger said the 1988 disasters cost the pier merchants $4.6 million in lost business (in 1987, revenue was $17.7 million), and the city's rental income fell about 30%, representing a $600,000 loss, largely because of reduced attendance.
"The last months of 1988 were especially terrible," she said. "The crowds weren't there, and some of the merchants were having a hard time paying their bills. But in the last few months, business has really picked up."
The Fourth of July weekend, combined with hot, smoggy weather, brought out large crowds, she said. "The pier business is totally dependent on the weather," she said. "If it's hot inland, people head for the beach."
Although optimistic about their short-term survival, merchants say the pier can never be the same--or better--until it is rebuilt.
"Even when we have good crowds, people don't circulate the way they did when they could walk around the Horseshoe," said Milner of Pier Imports, indicating an 800-foot gap in the central portion of the pier.
Pedestrian Traffic Limited
The southern side of the Horseshoe survived, along with a short leg on the north end that is no longer in use. Pedestrian traffic flow is further restricted by the loss in April of the fishing promenade that once connected the ocean side of the Horseshoe to the nearby Monstad Pier.
The Monstad Pier otherwise escaped major damage, but merchants there say their business also has been hit hard by reduced attendance. Ernest Kim, manager of the Redondo Beach Coffee Shop at the end of the Monstad, said his business had been down 30% to 40%, until picking up in recent months.
"Weather is the primary factor," he said. "No problem as long as the weather is hot."
Newcomer Don Stinson said uncertainty over the pier's future in the wake of the 1988 disasters caused him at first to rethink his plans to convert the old China Queen restaurant at the pier's entrance to Sinbad's, a seafood and steak restaurant similar to one he and his brother own in San Francisco.
"But it's such a tremendous area," Stinson said. "We decided to go ahead with our plans, and we haven't regretted it."
He said Sinbad's business has steadily increased since it opened seven months ago, with about 60% of the patronage coming from area residents.
Storm-driven waves caused some water damage along the International Boardwalk, a complex of 23 onshore businesses north of the pier parking structure. "We had six inches of water in here," said Heidi Von Goerlitz, office manager for the Fun Factory, an amusement arcade that has been in business at the pier for 30 years.
After a brief shutdown, the boardwalk businesses, like those on the pier, were back in operation--and waiting for the crowds to return. "We're advertising to let people know that we're still here, and business is beginning to pick up," Von Goerlitz said. "But last year was really slow."
Pier Properties, the largest of three leaseholders that rent buildings to individual businesses, lost 70% of its structures in the 1988 disasters, said general partner Jay Robinson. "I had 30 tenants before it all happened," he said. "Now I've got 11."
Robinson said he has survived many storms since he acquired his lease from the city in 1962. "But in the past, we just repaired the damage and got everybody back in business," he said. "Now we have to wait for the city to build a new pier. I wish they'd get on with it."
Recently the pier itself called attention to its less than robust condition. Another small section of the pier--part of the abandoned Fish & Chips restaurant--broke loose and fell into the ocean.