So near to Disneyland, so far from cashing in

Times Staff Writer

An elderly man in a dark suit walks into a City Council meeting promising to spread $8-billion all over town, building a theme park on a golf course and a boutique hotel and upscale outdoor mall on a long-neglected patch of land.

In any other town, the news might be greeted with cheers. In Garden Grove, skeptical residents roll their eyes.

"Yeah, and I wish I was taller and rainwater was root beer," said Jim Tortolano, longtime editor of the town's weekly newspaper, the Garden Grove Journal. "If those things happen, great. But I'm not going to hang by my toes waiting for them to occur."

The theme park proposal, hatched by a Korean businessman with supposed ties to Hong Kong investors, is merely the latest grand plan to float into town. And in a city that struggles for identity and waits for something magical that will boost its perennially troubled finances, Garden Grove civic leaders are both receptive and skeptical.

One developer proposed a replica of the London Bridge across a faux river. Another pitched Music City RiverWalk, a music-themed entertainment complex, and Middle Eastern investors proposed a cultural center for the late King Hussein of Jordan. A few years ago, a northern San Diego Indian tribe discussed teaming up with Steve Wynn to build a Las Vegas-style casino.

The ideas all failed, some for lack of money, some for lack of political will and some for poor timing.

Mark Leyes, a recently retired councilman, said he never knew what to make of the big dreamers.

"Some days you felt like you were sitting in a room with Walt Disney," he said. "Other days you felt like you were talking to the flim-flam man."

But while civic leaders have searched futilely for a project that will distinguish the central Orange County city, neighboring cities have cashed in. Anaheim added Downtown Disney to its already bustling resort district; the Block at Orange invigorated that city. In Irvine, a nondescript industrial area became the Spectrum -- a thriving outdoor mall that brims with nightlife.

Garden Grove has added about 2,500 hotel rooms. But the city's biggest draw for developers -- a 40-acre property on Harbor Boulevard a few miles from Disneyland -- is undeveloped, and Garden Grove remains nearly last in the county in tax revenue.

The frustration among city employees, business owners and longtime residents is visible.

"Two of our fire stations are converted decrepit houses," said Scott Weimer, 50, a firefighter who graduated from Garden Grove High. "We have less men on duty than we had in 1960, and our population has more than quadrupled since then.

"As citizens, we deserve more. If we don't do something right for once, we might as well hand over the keys to Anaheim," he said, "though I'm not sure they would have us."

J.J. Jauregui, who owns a popular Elvis-themed Mexican restaurant-bar on Main Street, is clamoring for anything that will inject some life into the town, even a casino, if that's what it takes.

"I know a casino will be controversial, but it will bring in a lot of revenue," he said. "I just think we have to do something to tie into Disneyland."

Of course, Garden Grove has been trying to draft off Disneyland's success almost since the town was incorporated in 1956, a year after the Magic Kingdom opened.

Garden Grove has a long but somewhat unremarkable history. It was founded in the 1870s by a developer named Alonzo G. Cook, survived a flood in 1916, and then an earthquake in 1933.

In the 1930s and 1940, it was a haunt for Hollywood stars. Some came to dry out at the Garden Grove Sanitarium, away from the glare of the bright lights. Others, such as Douglas Fairbanks and Will Rogers, would ride their horses at a polo field. Both the sanitarium and the polo fields are long gone.

By the 1960s, Garden Grove had become a place with an expressway named after it -- the 22 freeway -- and a down-home annual festival that saluted the strawberry, a once-bountiful crop that was quickly vanishing from the local landscape. The town had almost no industry or commercial base and somewhere along the way had picked up an unfortunate moniker -- Garbage Grove.

Weimer remembers a time in the 1970s when he couldn't go anywhere in the state without hearing it.

"It got to the point where we would tell people we weren't from Garden Grove because everyone would say, 'Oh, you mean Garbage Grove,' " he said. "We'd say we were from Orange County near Disneyland."

Tortolano said he never understood why Garden Grove's image turned to garbage in some people's eyes.

"Garden Grove: It sounds like a beautiful, sylvan community, with lush trees, beautiful lawns and flowing waterfalls," Tortolano said.

And for the most part, Tortolano says it is.

"This is a nice working-class community, with nice, well-tended homes and nice, big lots," he said. "There's so much here that can be done with the right degree of imagination or political will."

State politics have also played a role in Garden Grove's plight. With a local and state public finance system that restricts property tax revenue through Proposition 13, the city has struggled to cover city services.

Over the years, market studies and teams of consultants have all pointed to one solution -- build something, anything that will capitalize on the city's proximity to an amusement park that annually draws a reported 20 million to Anaheim's resort complex. A recent city-commissioned study predicted that a theme park in Garden Grove could bring up to 7 million visitors annually with gross revenues of $350 million the first year.

It's that kind of potential that keeps bringing Gordon Hoopes back to Garden Grove.

Hoopes designed the ill-fated RiverWalk, which ran out of money in the late 1990s. Nearly a decade later, he's working on a scaled-down version -- the Grand Canal. His plan is to lure visitors to stay an extra day or two after visiting Disneyland and California Adventure.

"I think there's a condition that could exist on Harbor Boulevard," said Hoopes, who helped design theme parks for Disney in Florida. "You'll never be able to build a park that will outdo Disneyland, but it would be nice to be second."

Garden Grove officials have traveled around the country selling their land and their city to such people as Hoopes, primarily at theme park and shopping mall conventions. Greg Blodgett, a Garden Grove economic development director, said he has learned not to discount any developer, or any idea.

"We saw a guy we thought was crazy at a convention nearly 10 years ago," Blodgett said. "He wanted to build a casino in the middle of nowhere. That guy wound up building Pechanga, which hasn't done too bad."

To some, the concept of a Latino theme park highlighting the food, culture and products of all 31 Mexican states might seem far-fetched. But Garden Grove officials have been talking to the developer for 18 months.

Weimer, like Jauregui, isn't a theme park fan. "I don't think we can ever hope to beat Disney at its own game," he said. "There's enough things to do around here for kids. Why not have something for adults, like a casino? And maybe if we built a casino, we could be the leader or first in something for once."

But as Congress considers legislation that would close an already small window for urban gambling, the casino option is fading fast. Tortolano, who has run the local paper with his wife for nearly 25 years, wonders if maybe city leaders shouldn't start thinking smaller.

"There's less a glamorous job of cultivating a community block by block, but there doesn't seem to be any interest in that," he said. "We have that big bang, home run mind set, which is OK if you hit the home runs. But when you go for home runs, you strike out a lot."

dave.mckibben@latimes.com

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