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Possible operating changes at H.B. surf museum churn up worries about preserving local history

The Famers exhibit, a celebration of surfing legends, at the International Surfing Museum in Hunting
The International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, pictured in 2013, houses memorabilia and artifacts documenting the sport’s history and important figures.
(File Photo)

Questions surrounding the future of the International Surfing Museum are making waves in Surf City USA as the city of Huntington Beach considers whether to allow another nonprofit to move into the museum’s longtime downtown home.

At the heart of the issue is a proposed five-year agreement that would allow Visit Huntington Beach — the local tourism bureau, which leases the property at 411 Olive Ave. from the city — to sublease the space to the San Clemente-based Surfing Heritage and Culture Center.

Doing so would boot the nonprofit International Surfing Museum out of the space it has occupied for roughly 30 years.

The proposal was withdrawn from the agenda for the Oct. 7 City Council meeting on city staff’s recommendation. But residents, supporters and volunteers have continued to mobilize against the idea, saying they’re concerned about potentially losing the locally focused museum, which has long been a cornerstone of Huntington’s surf culture.

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Should the change go through, locals “will no longer have a museum that represents the heritage of Huntington Beach,” resident Bob Pace said during Monday’s council meeting.

Another resident, Michael Daly, created a Change.org petition in May accusing Visit Huntington Beach of letting the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center “take over the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum and call it an ‘annex,’” which he alleged would allow that organization “to leverage the Surf City destination to promote SHACC.”

“This de-localizes the Surf City USA culture and history, our Huntington Beach surfing brand and tourism opportunities, our connection to the state of California surfers and global surfers, and the surfing realness and lifestyle of where we originated,” Daly wrote in his petition opposing the lease agreement. The petition had more than 3,200 signatures as of Friday.

The International Surfing Museum, he added, “has always been managed and operated locally in Huntington Beach, CA, to support the local and global community of surfers and tourists from around the world.”

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City Manager Oliver Chi said in a statement that “the city of Huntington Beach has no intention to move the museum outside of Huntington Beach. Our H.B. surfing history and culture is important to the city.”

The city took control of the property housing the museum in 2012, and a deed restriction stipulates that the building be used by a cultural organization, Chi said. Visit Huntington Beach leases the building from the city and, in turn, has subleased the space to the International Surfing Museum.

The proposed agreement would extend the lease with Visit Huntington Beach for five years, with the bureau this time subleasing the location to the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center.

From the city’s perspective, an advantage of the lease-sublease arrangement is that the visitors bureau is responsible for maintaining the historical building, Chi said.

But residents and advocates have questioned what a change in operator might mean for the collection of assets and artifacts the museum has amassed since it opened in 1988.

“What’s going to happen to the beautiful existing artifacts that were donated by the community?” said Diana Dehm, who served as the museum’s executive director for three years until March. “There is high-quality memorabilia that our community donated.”

Regardless of what happens with the lease, the artifacts will remain the property of the International Surfing Museum, Chi said.

Dehm urged the council Monday to put the lease out to bid and solicit “innovative and local options.”

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“There aren’t that many ways to preserve history and culture in Huntington Beach or around the world,” she said.

Dehm and others also have alleged that Visit Huntington Beach has considered paying the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center potentially $300,000 over two years to set up shop at the museum site.

“I know it’s been part of the discussion,” Chi said.

“If VHB is going to pay SHACC ... what investment is SHACC going to make in Huntington Beach?” Dehm said.

Visit Huntington Beach and the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Chi said the city would welcome proposals from local entities interested in operating in the space. The matter is being studied and will go to the council for consideration in coming months.

The goal, Chi added, is preserving the presence of a “premier museum that respects local history.”

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