Billed as having more square feet than any resort on the California coast, the 517-room Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa opened its doors Thursday--an event that's been anticipated for more than two decades.
For years, motorists have had glimpses of what was in store--the clearing away of a mobile home park, the earthmovers reshaping the land, the pedestrian bridge spanning Pacific Coast Highway.
"When I first bought the rights to this property back in 1978, I told myself, 'I'll build something in only five to six years,' " said Robert L. Mayer. "Boy, was I wrong."
The years stretched to decades, while the city's redevelopment agency relocated tenants from the mobile home park and construction wound its way to completion, said Mayer, chairman of the Robert Mayer Corp., which joined with the Hyatt Corp. to secure financing and build the $160-million resort.
With its 110,000 square feet of so-called function space, the new resort is bringing something that no other Orange County coastal hotel has: a convention room. It also has a 20,000-square-foot grand ballroom, two junior ballrooms and an exhibit hall.
For the city, the $4 million a year in anticipated revenue is a shot in the arm, especially after the city was forced to trim $7 million from its budget last year. In fact, City Administrator Ray Silver already has included resort revenue into the city's five-year plan.
"This is not more money, it's money that we've already accounted for and incorporated into our yearly budgeting projection," Silver said.
Some of the opening speeches included the tale of the nearby Waterfront Hilton, which Mayer and partners opened 13 years ago with similar fanfare but which took a financial beating. First the tanker American Trader fouled the Huntington Beach coast with nearly half a million gallons of crude oil, and then the long, deep recession took a toll on tourism.
The abysmal economy of the early 1990s stalled development throughout Orange County and plunged Mayer's company into bankruptcy.
But optimism prevailed. Occupancy at the Waterfront has climbed, the Hyatt has opened, and Mayer officials are planning a third hotel in the area and 180 nearby homes.
Though some analysts predicted a weak debut because of the flat economy, Mayer was confident the Hyatt resort will post an occupancy rate of about 65% in its first year, which could go up to at least 70% later. "We've been having a lot of advance convention and room sales," he said.
The resort, the proposed homes and the planned third hotel are changing the landscape of Huntington Beach's downtown, long a haven of surfers and sidewalk cafes. And not everyone is thrilled.
What was once an oil town where encyclopedia hawkers gave away downtown lots with a full set, the city's downtown is rapidly turning into just another Southern California beach town loaded with stucco and Spanish-tiled roofs, said resident and businessman James Lane. Lane is part of a citizen's group that tried to halt redevelopment.
"The city isn't interested in ridding blight or providing for low-income housing but in making deals with big, out-of-town developers," Lane said.
"Soon, the city will have another 1,000 hotel rooms. Is there that big of a need?"