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Harbor Officials Chart Course for Better Days

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun is shining, frosting the surface of the calm, blue water at Ventura Harbor with glints of bright light.

In the narrow channel, a dozen people paddle rented purple, red and yellow kayaks around yachts and sailboats resting in their slips.

Along the shoreline, above the docks, countless people mill about, casually perusing merchant wares and listening to the beat of a Calypso band.

Nearby, others pack the harbor’s waterside restaurants, gorging themselves on plates of grilled fish while a rusting trawler arrives from a long night at sea.

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In all, it is a fairly typical Saturday at the harbor.

“It’s an easy way to spend the day,” said Allen Ballard, while waiting to use an automatic teller machine. “It’s relaxing, there’s a lot of good food and it’s nice.”

With a complex and taxing bankruptcy behind them, Ventura Harbor officials hope to restore some of the port’s luster by finding ways to further develop the area into a regional attraction and bolster its overall economic strength.

Officials have spent five years mired in a $22-million bankruptcy mess, and they are now batting about ideas on how to develop some of the harbor’s large vacant tracts.

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They have also begun talking about ways to better market the harbor as a regional attraction with the Channel Islands National Park as its centerpiece.

“It’s a relief to have the bankruptcy behind us. . . . There are some real opportunities for us now,” said Edward Wohlenburg, director of the Ventura Port District, which manages the harbor. “We can start realizing the potential the harbor has for the entire community.”

Yet there are both obstacles and immense challenges ahead as district officials try to reach their goal.

For the next 30 years, a large portion of the district’s annual income will finance its bankruptcy debt, leaving little room for capital improvement projects and marketing programs.

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In addition, the harbor’s expansion plans, specifically those to develop the 20-acre parcel at the mouth of the harbor, are constrained by strict zoning regulations. Some officials worry that those restrictions will keep them from developing the land according to market demand.

And the relationship between the city and district, though vastly improved since the bankruptcy, remains tenuous, with some officials still refusing to talk directly with others.

“We’ve got some serious work to do,” said district Commissioner Gary Jacobs.

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Established in 1952 to explore ways of bringing a harbor to the city, the Ventura Port District is charged with managing the harbor’s operations while ensuring that it remains open for the industries that use it.

Construction began on the 274-acre harbor in 1961; it opened two years later to serve the county’s commercial fishing and offshore oil industries.

Over the years, the harbor grew into a visitor attraction, and beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the district began developing such tourist-friendly amenities as Harbor Village and the marinas.

The harbor ran into trouble in 1991 when it lost a $15.7-million breach-of-contract suit filed by the developers, Ventura Group Ventures. The company sued after the port district reneged on a development agreement.

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In 1993, the district filed for bankruptcy--the first public agency in Ventura County to do so.

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In addition to the judgment, the district owed $4 million to the state’s Department of Boating and Waterways for a range of services and $2 million to a number of smaller creditors.

Last spring, a bankruptcy court judge approved the district’s plan to sell $15.2 million in 30-year revenue bonds to help pay off the debt. Of that, about $9 million has gone to Ventura Group Ventures and $1 million to the state.

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The remainder will settle debts with other creditors and set up a small marketing account and fund for improvements.

As part of the bailout, the district is committed to paying $1.2 million a year for 30 years to service its debt, which officials said is difficult considering the district annually generates only $4.5 million through lease fees.

“It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was something that we absolutely had to do,” Wohlenburg said. “It’s hard paying that because that’s $1 million that could be used to build buildings and make the harbor an even better place to visit.”

Despite those hardships, officials think that since the bankruptcy, a window of opportunity has opened that could make the harbor a strong regional attraction and ensure its financial viability.

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The Coastal Commission recently granted an amendment to the district, allowing it to develop residential apartment and condominium units as well as a sizable retail cluster on the 20-acre parcel. Previously, the commission zoned the property for strictly commercial development.

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More than a dozen companies have already expressed interest in developing the land, and within the next month the district will begin accepting project proposals.

The National Park Service also hopes to raise money to build a large educational facility adjacent to Channel Island National Park headquarters at the end of Spinnaker Drive.

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And late last year, the Santa Barbara Channel Foundation, a nonprofit ocean awareness group, proposed building a 40,000-square-foot aquarium and interpretive center at the harbor.

Foundation director John Cahill said the aquarium, which would be built with private funds, would be the largest between Los Angeles and Monterey and could attract more than 500,000 people annually.

The Ventura County Small Business Development Center has recently been working with harbor businesses to better market the area as a whole and to operate more efficiently.

The city of Ventura has also stepped in and assumed a more prominent role in guiding the harbor’s future.

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In addition to designating it an economic development zone, city officials are now stressing the importance of working together to ensure the area’s success.

“I think the goal for the harbor is reaching that critical mass where its business activities and the city’s in general work in concert,” said David Kleitsch, economic development director for the city of Ventura. “Being partners and presenting a united front is only going to give us more mileage when we get down to doing this.”

Even with the uncertainties and challenges, harbor officials said the future is much brighter than it was a year ago.

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“The next 10 years are going to be important, and what we do now is going to have an effect on where we are by that point,” Jacobs said. “But at least we’re in a position where we can begin looking ahead and consider what to do.”


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