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Showdown by the seashore

Just about every tourist-related business in Santa Monica sees dollar signs in Cirque du Soleil’s return to a beachfront parking lot near the pier this fall.

Everyone, that is, except the company that runs the Pacific Park amusement center.

The 2-acre park, with a freshly renovated Ferris wheel and a roller coaster, has emerged as a major draw for the pier, city officials acknowledge.

But now, it’s squaring off against an even more powerful draw: Cirque du Soleil.

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The circus, which features acrobatic performers on extravagant sets, will be bringing its “Kooza” show to Santa Monica starting Oct. 16 for a two-month run.

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses, anticipating large crowds, are eagerly behind the show, which is expected to bring local merchants at least $4 million in additional revenue.

The problem for Pacific Park is that Cirque du Soleil will be setting up on what it considers to be its main parking lot, blocking more than 700 spaces.

There is also public parking on the pier itself and in other nearby lots, but park managers are concerned that many of their 4 million annual visitors won’t want to compete with Cirque fans for parking spaces.

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“It’s difficult to find ourselves as the sole major business that does not anticipate a major windfall from Cirque,” Pacific Park Chief Executive Mary Ann Powell said. “It’s not a comfortable position to be in, because usually everyone’s interests are in tandem.”

Powell said she feared that the circus’ presence could shave $1 million off the park’s projected $4-million fall revenue.

Santa Monica residents saved the pier from demolition in the 1970s, but as a business concern, it was still a bit shaky in 1996.

That’s when Santa Monica Amusements, a group of 25 private investors, pooled their funds to construct the 70,000-square-foot park. The venture is overseen by a five-member management committee that includes Richard Hochman of Regent Capital in New York and Richard Olshansky of Los Angeles.

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The park’s 12 rides, 21 games and food court help anchor the pier and draw visitors and their wallets to the area.

“The park is very valuable,” said Misty Kerns, president of the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’ve served as a very impressive anchor to the pier and helped catapult it to be even more famous than it was before.”

The rides twist and slope near the city-owned carousel at the front of the pier, which also features restaurants including Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a trapeze school and booths where merchants peddle sunglasses, necklaces with rice grains that have names etched on them and other trinkets.

The iconic Ferris wheel has had hundreds of film cameos, including Tom Hanks movies and TV shows such as “Entourage.” In May, the park installed a new $1.5-million solar-powered wheel that stands nine stories high.

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About 350 employees, many of them young workers on their first jobs, help operate the park during the peak season each summer. The city leases the property to the park, which paid nearly $750,000 in 2008 in rent and other fees.

Powell said park revenue had increased for each of the last six years, totaling $17 million in 2008 -- up $1 million over the previous year.

She believes that the recession may actually be working in the park’s favor, as families skip the costly theme parks and opt instead for a day at the beach and a few rides on the pier.

Last year, Powell persuaded investors to pay for the Seaside Cabana, which could be rented out for parties, and five new rides that parents could ride with their kids. A bumper car ride alone cost $300,000.

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But with Cirque’s imminent arrival, Powell said she feared that the new rides wouldn’t draw the business she had anticipated.

Cirque du Soleil, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, first performed next to the pier in 1987 in what the company considers its first commercial success. It last visited Santa Monica in 2000.

On Jan. 27, the Santa Monica City Council gave preliminary approval to a plan that would allow the troupe to use part of the parking lot at 1550 Pacific Coast Highway from Sept. 14 through Dec. 31 for its circus tent and to sublease satellite parking lots for guests. Performances would run from Oct. 16 through Dec. 20.

City officials said hundreds of other parking spaces would still be available to beach and pier patrons in nearby lots. And a recent study found that the number of cars in Santa Monica exceeded public parking capacity just four days a year on average, said Barbara Stinchfield, Santa Monica’s director of community and cultural services.

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But park patrons tend to be impulsive and usually don’t plan their visits, Powell said.

Since most Cirque goers buy their tickets in advance, she noted, they won’t be discouraged by jammed parking lots and won’t mind driving a little farther to find a space.

“This will be our most capital-intensive year,” she said. “And it will be very risky if our last quarter is negatively impacted. There has been nothing agreed upon at this juncture that is meaningful to the park, and it’s very frightful when you’re also paying for developments, as well as operating expenses and payroll.”

Pacific Park is trying to negotiate a solution with the city and Cirque to reduce its anticipated losses. The circus has already promised to pay for free shuttles to the pier from the satellite lots.

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Other ideas to help the amusement park include holding a Cirque pre-show there, and giving free Ferris wheel tickets to Cirque patrons.

“We are as concerned as everyone else and are thinking outside the box and considering lots of options,” said Karen Gay, a Cirque executive whose job title is director of global citizenship. “But as a business, Pacific Park has to look out for themselves, and no matter what we offer at the end of the day, they’ll be skeptical of whether it’ll work.”

Powell concedes that most businesses in town see the circus as a shot in the arm.

“Businesses are hurting across the board, and we need people here to buy,” said Laurel Rosen, president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. “This way, people have something to look forward to.”

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With roughly 81 shows planned and 480,000 California members in Cirque’s official fan club, the show is a “knight in shining armor coming to rescue our dismal business,” one Santa Monica retailer said at a recent City Council meeting.

Local restaurants, including the Lobster, anticipate a 30% jump in revenue when the circus enters town. People who go to live shows spend an average of $50 within a five-mile radius of the event location, translating into at least $4.2 million for Santa Monica businesses, according to a 2008 Cirque survey.

Cirque’s cast and crew will also have to stay and eat in the city for the show’s duration.

“There’s no negative to Cirque coming when almost every retailer is down and ‘even’ is the new ‘up,’ ” said Jeff King of King’s Seafood Co., which owns the Ocean Avenue Seafood and i. Cugini restaurants. “When you’re bringing thousands of people into the area up to twice a day, those people have to eat someplace.”

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Cirque will pay the city a $953,000 base rental fee. It also expects to spend $2.2 million on local services and supplies.

Coupled with a slew of events this year, including the Taste of Santa Monica food festival and several museum openings, the circus could soothe Santa Monica’s recession pains and help it emerge as a major cultural player, city leaders said.

“We’re a city that’s outgrown our clothes,” Rosen said. “This is a much savvier place in the way they handle large events than they used to be. We’re really learning that if you build it, people will come.”

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com


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