Huntington Beach will put surf museum operations out to bid

The city of Huntington Beach is preparing a request for proposals from potential operators for the local surfing museum.
The city of Huntington Beach is preparing a request for proposals from potential operators for the local surfing museum.
(File Photo)

Local groups may get a shot at running an institution close to the heart of Huntington Beach — its surfing museum — now that the city has decided to put management of the cultural space out to bid.

Members of the museum and the local surfing community had protested a proposed change of operators at City Council meetings in October and November.

Huntington Beach City Manager Oliver Chi said the city is preparing a request for proposals that is expected to be released shortly after the holidays.

Emotions flared when city staff and Visit Huntington Beach — the local tourism bureau that leases the museum property at 411 Olive Ave. from the city — put lease agreements on the Oct. 7 council agenda that would replace the current subtenant, the nonprofit Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, as the space’s operator and give a five-year sublease to the San Clemente-based Surfing Heritage and Culture Center.

A proposed five-year agreement would allow Visit Huntington Beach — the local tourism bureau, which leases the International Surfing Museum property at 411 Olive Ave. from the city — to sublease the site to the San Clemente-based Surfing Heritage and Culture Center.

The proposal was withdrawn from the agenda on city staff’s recommendation. But residents, museum supporters and volunteers have continued to express concern about potentially losing the locally focused museum, a cornerstone of Huntington’s surf culture for roughly 30 years.

Local officials have said they have no intention of moving the museum outside of Huntington Beach but want to see the institution run more professionally.

The city took control of the property in 2012, and a deed restriction stipulates that the building be used by a cultural organization.

“We don’t know what the future is going to look like as far as the lease goes,” said Visit Huntington Beach President and Chief Executive Kelly Miller.

“We’ve invested a lot of money, time and resources, and that unfortunately has not been portrayed,” Miller said, referring to the cost of maintaining the building and partially staffing the museum, among other support.

“Aside from a few big splashes, the museum hasn’t done anything because they don’t have docents,” said Tom Gibbins, a founding director of the museum who taught surfing at Cal State Long Beach for 35 years. Gibbins said he’s become a lifetime museum member on three separate occasions.

“If they [the tourism bureau] are willing to commit to the museum like they are willing to commit to SHACC, it would be great,” Gibbins said. “I just hate to see Huntington Beach dollars and our unique little museum go by the wayside.”

The Surfing Heritage and Culture Center is not negotiating with the city or the surfing museum to lease the space, SHACC Executive Director Glenn Brumage said in a statement, and it’s unclear whether it will apply once the city requests proposals.

“SHACC and the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum have always cooperated and collaborated on a professional level and will continue to do so in the future in regard to sharing artifacts, assisting one another with exhibits and working together for the common purposes and goals of preserving surfing’s rich history, heritage and culture for future generations,” Brumage said.

Diane Dehm, who was executive director of the International Surfing Museum for three years until March, has been at the forefront of a push to keep the institution locally managed.

Looking beyond one potential operator provides the opportunity to “bring in fresh eyes,” she said.

“It never hurts to get opinions,” Chi said.

Bidders will have to demonstrate how they would run the museum and fund its operations.

Both Visit Huntington Beach and the International Surfing Museum will have to submit proposals for review if they want to maintain their presence in the space.

“We have absolutely appreciated that VHB has stepped up over the last seven years. ... This is an opportunity to take a breath and coordinate this review process,” Chi said.

The city will be looking for proposals of a “high enough caliber to meet the city’s expectations [of] a premier international museum,” he said.

The International Surfing Museum’s website has been down for months, and Gary Sahagen, a former director of the museum, recently discovered that the domain had been acquired by another party. The page now features text describing surfing-related online slot machines.

“What we envision is the museum to have long-term stability and confidence from the public with strong oversight for itself,” Sahagen said. “We need to come up with an alternate plan.”

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4:12 p.m. Dec. 10, 2019: This article was originally published at 2:29 p.m. and has been updated with additional infromation.