At its official dedication Thursday, the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific was saluted by officials as a symbolic link to the city's past and a $117-million cornerstone for its future.
"What you are seeing is a departure from what we were to where we are going," Mayor Beverly O'Neill told a large group of local and national news reporters while standing in front of the aquarium's three-story predator tank. "This structure shows . . . that we have a vision for our future."
Under a cloudless sky, city leaders played host to an international group of VIPs invited to dedicate the aquarium, which will open to the public Saturday.
The theme of the dedication ceremony, held outside the facility at Shoreline Drive and Aquarium Way, was Long Beach's connection with the Pacific Rim. A consular corps with representatives from nine Pacific Rim nations joined state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and hundreds of local residents to celebrate the city's newest attraction.
The highlight of the ceremony was a performance by the International Peace Choir, consisting of 41 children dressed in costumes representing different nations of the world.
Like others, Lungren, who grew up in Long Beach, said he thought the aquarium was a great way to connect the city with its past. He said that for years the city appeared to be focused on developments inland. "Some of us as kids wondered why we were moving the city away from the ocean," he said. "It's taken awhile, but they got it right now. They've now moved something very important to the city . . . right down on the ocean."
The aquarium was designed and financed at one of the city's lowest points in its history. During the 1920s and '30s, Long Beach's waterfront was a booming tourist mecca and the Pike amusement park, with a Ferris wheel and Cyclone Racer roller coaster, drew out-of-towners.
But by the early 1990s, the Pike had long been shut down, the Navy announced that it was closing its naval base and shipyard and the Walt Disney Co. walked away from the Queen Mary, which it had purchased, and said it was dropping plans for a $3-billion amusement park. At the same time, the city's largest employer, the McDonnell Douglas aircraft plant, was undergoing a dramatic downsizing.
"It took a crisis to bring us together," said City Councilman Alan Lowenthal, one of the driving forces behind the aquarium. "We knew that we had one opportunity, and one opportunity alone in 1992, and if we did not come together and forge a plan we were going down. We knew that real clearly. And we made the most of our opportunity."
Of course, the real verdict on the success is probably a few years away. The $117 million in revenue bonds used to finance the aquarium will be paid off over the next 30 years, payments that will go on long after the initial excitement wears off.
Pre-opening buzz has helped the aquarium sell 24,000 season tickets at up to $95 each.
"The trick is going to be sustaining the momentum," said Chris Pook of the Toyota Grand Prix.
* WARM AND A LITTLE FUZZY
Mammalogists at aquarium have a dream job. E1