Boosters hold high hopes for ExplorOcean

NEWPORT BEACH — Ship models? They may be better suited for a yacht club or a fireplace mantel.

On Saturday, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum will publicly unveil plans for ExplorOcean, a roughly $40-million interactive amusement and educational center that focuses on mankind's relationship with the sea. With a "4D" sensory theater, submarine simulators and other family-oriented attractions, the project's backers envision a regional, if not national, draw for the Balboa Peninsula.

ExplorOcean is showing how the Nautical Museum is expanding beyond — some say discarded — local history and the traditional notion of a museum.

"It's something that takes a little time to grasp," said Tom Pollack, chairman of the ExplorOcean board of trustees. "It's a broader definition of what a nautical museum should be."

The new building would completely alter the landscape and dwarf the iconic Balboa Pavilion, a relic of the early 1900s and state historic landmark. It would also replace the 1930s-era Fun Zone, a mini amusement park with a carousel and arcades.

Plans by Irvine-based architectural firm LPA, Inc. show a three-story amalgamation of glass, concrete, metal and wood. The materials seek to evoke the waterfront, said Principal Richard D'Amato.

"This whole area is going to come alive," D'Amato said fantastically, pointing to a simulated "fly-thru" video of the plans.

Designers have created an "adventure pier," which would support a relocated Ferris wheel, a children's "nautical-themed maze" and a water play area. A long dock provides space for visiting boaters and could accommodate an historic tall ship.

The building would be 34,000 square feet, including some open-air patios. A "sustainable seafood" restaurant is planned for the second level, and a café on the first. Both would offer bay views.

The highest point of the planned structure is 60 feet. While slightly lower than the Pavilion's cupola at 65 feet, the new structure is much wider.

ExplorOcean's marquee attraction is a "4D" theater conceived by The Hettema Group, a Pasadena-based theme park design firm. Dubbed "Into the Unknown," the theater will attempt to recreate a certain era of exploration — the Vikings or ancient Polynesians, for instance.

The theater's plans show an abstracted boat in the center of a circular room. The ship would move, and so would the images on the walls, boat and floor. Sounds of the sea would crash from all around.

The fourth dimension? Smell. Salt air could be injected into the room.


Humble beginnings

There was no need to inject musty air into first Nautical Museum building. In a small wooden structure farther up the peninsula, the organization was founded 25 years ago by a group of devoted local boaters and history buffs.

Avid sailor Bettina Bents was one of the first advocates of a Newport Beach nautical museum. After she died in 1986 at age 26, her family worked to keep her dream alive. Her brother, Robert Bents, supports the museum's new direction today.

"You have to move with the time, and it includes moving beyond some of the past history," he said.

But venturing beyond the group's vision of "preserving and promoting maritime heritage" has upset some longtime supporters.

Louise Fundenberg, a lifelong peninsula resident, said she feels like the group's most recent board of trustees has decided on a wayward course.

"It has nothing to do with the history of Newport Beach," she said. "It takes the community out of the organization."

In the late 1980s, Fundenberg donated a cotton sail from her Snowbird boat — a popular class in the harbor for many years. Today, she says she plans to cancel her membership.

While past directors made a point of reaching out to the community, the latest group has been much more exclusive, Fundenberg said.

"They've cut out the little people who started the thing in the first place," she said.

Fundenberg said she was also upset that the museum evicted the carousel, which, up until last month, rented space on the museum's property.

Its eviction, however, came before the released ExplorOcean plans that show what would replace the cherished amusement ride.

"The carousel signaled change that maybe the community was not prepared for," said Rita Stenlund, president of ExplorOcean who previously worked in community relations for South Coast Plaza. "The timing was off."


Funding a vision

Amid the anemic economy, the group has to raise tens of millions of dollars before it can begin construction. Stenlund said the organization has an $8-million endowment, much of which has come from the Steele family, a Newport Beach philanthropic clan.

With better estimates expected next month, ExplorOcean organizers say the project should cost more than $35 million. They are considering how many shows they could afford to present in the "4D" theater

Plans have been redesigned in recent years to incorporate some of the more elaborate interactive elements.

"We also realized we needed a sustainable business model beyond donations," said Board Chairman Tom Pollack, 51, who was a bond investor and a member of the U.S. Sailing Team.

He pointed to the Monterey Bay and Vancouver aquariums as models with multiple revenue streams. At ExplorOcean, he expects to rent space for private events, charge admission (with a price to be determined), operate a gift shop, two restaurants and other money-making components.

Some have criticized the theme because is appears similar to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. But Stenlund said those groups focus on the marine environment and science-based discovery, while ExplorOcean will be about "our interaction" with the ocean and "the romance of the sea."

"This is a well-developed niche," she said.

The last feasibility study was conducted in 2008, but Pollack said he is confident the business model will work. He's about to begin another economic analysis.


Boon for the area

Civic leaders hope ExplorOcean will spark reinvestment by property owners in Balboa Village, where rusty signs hang over dingy sidewalks and empty storefronts.

"We hope this and the Balboa Theater will be the catalysts for the revitalization of the area," said Mayor Mike Henn.

The Balboa Performing Arts Theater, another nonprofit organization, is raising money to renovate a historic building nearby. For some peninsula residents, the two attractions would provide a level of cultural cache that they say is lacking from the area's palm readers and toe-ring stores.

Some of the peninsula's legacy should stay, the boosters say — like the Pavilion, of course — but now it must share the billing for the area's most iconic building.

"In our minds we think it's complementary," Pollack said.

Twitter: @mreicher

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