Oceanside’s transformation from military town to tourist draw complete
This fall, the last American troops will leave Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war that involved tens of thousands of troops who trained and deployed from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Since the 200-square-mile military base was established along the northern border of Oceanside in 1942, the city has had a strong and symbiotic relationship with the Marine Corps.
But the Corps’ economic impact on the Oceanside economy has gradually declined. Over the past two decades, the city’s fast-expanding tourism industry has outpaced the military as the primary driver of business.
Longtime Oceanside merchants and residents say the city’s downtown area now is nothing like it was in October 2001, when the first troops deployed to Afghanistan. In the years since then, downtown’s last strip club and the rowdiest of its bars have all been replaced by restaurants, high-end condominiums and hotels.
Today, there remains a handful of 50- to 60-year-old businesses in a two-block area just west of City Hall that still cater almost exclusively to Camp Pendleton Marines. Barbershops, dry cleaners, tailors, military surplus and medal-mounting shops say that more than 90% of their customers come from the base. Over the years, their business has declined, but merchants say they’re happy for the city’s transformation.
“On one hand, it’s terrible because I can’t eat my lunch at the front counter and see the ocean anymore with all the new hotels in the way,” joked Jerry Alexander, 82, who has owned G.I. Joe’s Army-Navy Surplus on Pier View Way since 1968. “On the other hand, the city has done an enormously good job in moving forward. Years ago, nobody from [north San Diego County] wanted to come to downtown Oceanside. Now it doesn’t have a bad reputation anymore.”
The need for speed
Just four months after the U.S. entered World War II, the Marine Corps paid $4.2 million for the massive Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores property north of Oceanside to construct a boot camp that would become the largest amphibious training base on the West Coast.
John Daley, vice president of the Oceanside Historical Society, said the base’s initial encampment was constructed in just a few months.
In 1942, Oceanside had only 4,500 residents, but the Marine Corps needed 5,000 workers to build the base in a hurry. Daley said many of the thousands of workers who poured into the city had to sleep in sheds for lack of housing and the wait time at the city’s restaurants could be six to eight hours.
One of the city’s oldest hotels, the 1927-era Hotel DeWitt, was commandeered by the Southern California Telephone Co. to serve as the base’s communications center during the war. Renovated and reopened in 2018 as the Fin Hotel, its restaurant was named the Switchboard to honor the building’s war history, Daley said.
From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, Oceanside had it own bus system, which brought busloads of Marines into town on Friday nights and paydays. When he was 8 years old, Daley sold newspapers on downtown streets. He still remembers the sight of up to four busloads of Marines pulling into town at the same time and 150 or so Marines pouring out on the streets for some rest and relaxation.
Restaurants, bars, cocktail lounges and strip clubs sprung up to serve those needs. There were also numerous service businesses that opened that are still operating today, such as G.I. Joe’s, Dorothy’s Military Attire & Cleaning and Esquire Barber Shop. Although most of these services were offered at Camp Pendleton, Alexander said the on-base shops couldn’t keep up with the volume of demand so Marines came to town for quicker service.
Within a two-block radius of downtown there are four barbershops, including Esquire, that opened in 1952 on Pier View Way. Esquire is co-owned by Johnny Gomez, 83, who has been cutting hair there for a mostly military clientele since 1962. “We Support Our Troops” is stenciled on the window of the old-fashioned shop, which still has its original swivel chairs and taxidermied deer and elk heads on the walls. Military members can still get a “high and tight” haircut for $10.
“I’ve cut the hair of Marines who’ve served in every war since Vietnam,” said Gomez, an Army veteran. “But they come in here to have their hair cut, not to talk about war. They just have the attitude that they had a job to do and they went and did it. Now they just want to forget about it.”
Base takes care of its own
Today, Camp Pendleton employs 46,063 people, including more than 3,200 civilians. That has made it the largest north San Diego County employer for more than 60 years, according to an impact study.
Over the past 20 years, particularly during the “grow the force” troops surge in 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense increased its spending on construction projects at Camp Pendleton to expand on base services to its troops. In 2009 alone, military construction spending on-base peaked at $900 million, up from $400 million in 2008, according to Capt. David M. Mancilla, operations officer for MCI-West COMMSTRAT at Camp Pendleton.
Projects completed on base over the past two decades include a hospital, two dining facilities, several bachelor enlisted quarters, warehouses and administrative buildings. To provide troops with recreation, the base opened the Paige Fieldhouse, one of the largest fitness centers in the Marine Corps, and it refurbished and upgraded its beach cottages in San Onofre and at Del Mar Beach.
To serve the mental health needs of its troops, Navy Medicine on base also launched several health programs that helped service members returning from deployments cope with combat stress-related issues. The most recent project was the opening of the Spirit Concussion Recover Clinic in 2019.
Also, for Marine Corps families, there are now five K-8 schools on base operated by the Oceanside and Fallbrook school districts. The Oceanside Unified School District says that as many as 2,500 military children attend classes at its three elementary schools at Camp Pendleton.
Tourism takes the lead
Before the pandemic, military spending represented 9% of San Diego County’s economy, while tourism represented 12%, according to the San Diego Assn. of Governments. During the pandemic, the county’s tourism sector lost 77,000 jobs, for a combined $1.4 billion in lost wages. But tourism officials are bullish on the industry’s return.
Scott Ashton, CEO of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce, said the military has and will always play an important role in the Oceanside community and economy, but times have changed.
“In the earlier days of Oceanside, our economy would be greatly impacted by the deployment status of our Camp Pendleton troops,” he said. “While we still have certain industry sectors that are heavily dependent on our service members, our overall economy has diversified quite a bit in the last couple of decades. Tourism is a key economic driver with Oceanside being the recipient of $414 million in visitor spending in 2019.”
Visit Oceanside, which promotes tourism and conferences in the city, said in its 2019 report that tourism was experiencing record growth. In 2019, the tourism sector supported 3,500 Oceanside jobs, an increase of 3.4% since 2010. Also in 2019, Oceanside hotel guests paid a record $8.9 million in transient occupancy taxes to the city.
For many years, Daley had a front-row seat as the city gradually changed from a military town into a tourist magnet. For 30 years, he and his childhood friend David Ranson ran the 101 Café on Coast Highway. They sold the business in 2016. He said tourism has been good for Oceanside and the influence of military spending at downtown businesses hasn’t really changed that much recently, whether there’s a war on or not.
Daley said there was a famous misunderstanding many years ago when a news crew from a Los Angeles television station arrived one afternoon to survey downtown Oceanside after the first Marines deployed from Camp Pendleton for war in the Middle East.
He said the crew shot some footage outside the closed 101 Café and surmised that the loss of military business had devastated the city. In fact, the café only served breakfast and lunch and had closed that day, as it always did, at 2 p.m.
“We never saw a drop in business when the Marines deployed,” Daley said. “Things have just changed in Oceanside. The city’s economy is more diversified now. The businesses that work well now are different than the ones that worked before. Right now, food and beverage businesses are doing great. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.”
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