Garden Grove Aims to Bring Magic South

Times Staff Writer

Back when he worked for Disney, Mel Cecil once stood on an empty plot in Orlando, Fla. No dirt had been shoveled, no concrete poured. On that same property today, he’d be smack in the middle of Walt Disney World.

“Without a vision,” Cecil said, “you never end up with anything.”

For more than a year, Cecil, who is now a destination and theme park consultant, has been dreaming up a plan to reinvigorate Garden Grove, one of the most cash-strapped cities in Orange County.

He and a team of consultants have completed $250,000 in market studies all concluding the same thing: Garden Grove must bank on its proximity to Disneyland and march development down Harbor Boulevard to boost the city’s faltering economy. That means a theme park bigger than California Adventure, music venues, dozens of new restaurants and thousands of additional hotel rooms.


To some, it’s a make-or-break moment for Garden Grove.

The city can continue as it is -- nearly last in the county in tax revenue -- fighting the “Garbage Grove” inferiority complex of being overshadowed by Anaheim and fearing it may be forced out of business every time the state threatens to slash funding. Only Stanton, a city forced to cut its own Police Department to save money, brings in less tax revenue.

Or Garden Grove’s leaders can think big and hope residents and developers buy into the idea. If the dream is realized, the city will create 19,000 jobs and reap $100 million annually in hotel, sales and property taxes.

During his state of the city address, Mayor Bruce Broadwater used military language and Revolutionary War images as he spoke of the city’s future.

“Just as in guerrilla war, opportunities reward bold action and slip away from those who wait too long,” Broadwater said. “The choice is ours. The time is now.”

After a trip to Orlando, city staff and council members seemed convinced that Harbor Boulevard has a golden future. They’re comparing it to International Drive, a roughly three-mile stretch flanked by Universal Studios and SeaWorld, with nine major attractions and sites such as the Orlando Convention Center, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Emeril’s Restaurant packed in between.

It’s the same length along Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland in Anaheim to Highway 22 in Garden Grove.


“The logic would tell you that we have a market that’s just as strong,” said Cecil, whose company LEDO International Inc. has clients including Legoland, the Miami Metrozoo and the Seattle Space Needle.

“If people don’t know the opportunity is here, it’s certainly not going to happen. It requires action now,” he said.

City officials and their consultants are still perfecting the sales pitch for the dream they are currently calling “International West.”

Its motto: “The world comes to Garden Grove.”

The city will soon unveil the project on a Web site. Brochures and drawings are being completed so that the city can take its spiel on the road to shopping center, hotel and amusement park conventions later this year.

Officials also plan to hold one-on-one meetings with major studios such as Universal and Paramount in hopes of sparking interest in a 70-acre parcel. (Disneyland occupies 85 acres; California Adventure, 55 acres.)

They have intricate maps and artist sketches. One illustration shows a pedestrian walkway over a river-lined Harbor Boulevard and a streetcar that will carry tourists from one end of town to the other.


Pie in the sky? Perhaps. Land use consultant Steve Balgrosky, a managing partner at the consulting firm Economics Research Associates, said prospects for Garden Grove tapping into Anaheim’s bustling tourism have brightened with additions like California Adventure and Downtown Disney.

But the property around Disneyland is already highly developed, unlike the open land in Orlando that gave visionaries a blank slate. “To create in an area that’s highly urbanized is challenging,” Balgrosky said.

Still, the city has had some success. Riding Anaheim’s coattails and the convention center and resort expansion, Garden Grove gambled on hotel construction -- and won -- with a steep price. At Chapman Avenue and Harbor Boulevard, there are seven new hotels and one major renovation that added 2,500 rooms in the last two years.

For seven of the hotels, the city gave away land valued at $32 million and agreed to share 30% of the revenue for seven years. The city did not give the Hyatt land for its renovation but is handing over 75% of the revenue for 12 years, said community development director Matt Fertal.

Despite the hotel boom, one has to squint to see the envisioned future along the tired-out stretch of Harbor Boulevard that reaches into Garden Grove.

In Anaheim, the street is lined with lush landscaping and palm trees. In Garden Grove -- just beyond the new hotels and restaurants -- the street is a mishmash of rundown storefronts, empty buildings and RV parks. A Mega Shoe Factory and a ‘60s-styled Coco’s Restaurant sit directly across from the towering Hyatt.


There have been disappointments too.

A project called Music City Riverwalk fell through when developers couldn’t line up tenants and $400 million in funding. The project would have featured an artificial river lined with restaurants, themed entertainment venues and specialty shops.

And last summer, city officials stumbled into a public relations nightmare when overambitious redevelopment plans called for rezoning huge chunks of neighborhoods lining Harbor Boulevard -- a plan that could have forced 1,000 families from their homes.

After hundreds of angry residents picketed meetings, council members scaled back the plan.

“Last year was an example of a misstep,” said Councilman Mark Leyes. “It was too aggressive.... We need to get these revised plans out in front of the community. They’re partners in this, too. We need their involvement, their buy-in.”

City Manager George Tindall agreed the city tried to go too far, too fast. The key now is helping residents understand that with economic development, the city could hire more police officers and firefighters, repair cracked sidewalks and increase community services.

And with a more diversified local economy, the city will not be so dependent on state money. As it stands, Tindall said, Garden Grove is in “survival mode,” trying to ride out the state’s budget crisis.

Some residents, still wary after last summer’s controversy, may need persuading. Verla Lambert, president of the Coalition of Concerned Garden Grove Residents, said she’s not opposed to the “international” concept or even a mini-EPCOT, a Disney park that showcases world cultures. A street lined with international shops and ethnic cuisine would fit right in with Garden Grove’s diversity, she said.


“I’m not against the shops and the revenues. I just don’t feel like a theme park would do it,” Lambert said.

Her chief concern, one echoed by many residents, is how to sweeten the deal enough to lure developers without squandering city revenue.

“The money has to come from someplace,” said longtime resident June Eckert. “Who supplies it? If you give it to [developers], how do you get it back?”

These are questions the city is still grappling with. But first, city officials said, people must believe in the long-term vision.

“The issue is: Are we living up to our potential as a city?” said council member Van Tran. “Are we willing as a city to take that risk, to take that leap of faith to build and to move on to bigger things?”