City's Big vacancy

CORONA DEL MAR — After she lugged six teenagers, folding chairs and a pink zebra-print bag full of blankets from San Dimas to Corona del Mar, all Julie Riccardo wanted was a cool iced tea.

"I'm thirsty, and there's nothing to drink," Riccardo, 53, lamented Friday next to the shuttered snack bar at Corona del Mar State Beach.

Its windows and counter caked with dust, the stand has sat vacant for years. In 2005, the city spent millions on a new building and other beach amenities, but officials have been unable to land a successful tenant.

A longtime burgers-and-fries operator was rebuffed, and dreams of a sit-down restaurant serving locals flopped. Now, with the latest round of concessionaire proposals submitted Thursday, people are hoping again the city will find a realistic restaurant.

"It was worth giving it a try, to see if something different could work there," said Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner, who represents the area. "But we have to just understand that that the big market there is not going to be locals; it's going to be tourists."

The city operates the concessions and parking lot, and maintains facilities at the state-owned beach.

In 2008, city officials signed a contract with Fuji Grill, an Irvine-based Japanese quick-service restaurant with locations around Southern California. Realizing that people would still want traditional beach fare, Fuji Grill President John Lee designed a hybrid menu with $3 hot dogs and $10 grilled salmon combination plates.

The restaurant lasted there 16 months.

While Lee blames the city's hike in parking fees, high food costs and a troubled economy, he also admits that the concept wasn't spot-on.

"I tried to make it more of a destination place for Newport," said Lee, who installed 12 tables with blue umbrellas around the building, and built a wood enclosure for dining on a cool winter night.

When Rudy's Pub & Grill wanted to serve alcohol there in 2007, the City Council turned down its application.

For decades, Big Corona fare was simple: candy, burgers, fries, ice cream and the like. Newport Beach resident Gordon Kilmer operated two large snack bars that sold refreshments and rented or sold beach toys, before the city renovated the facilities.

"It's all the kind of food people complain about, but that's what they want," said Kilmer, who is now semi-retired and manages property in the city.

He bid the first time the city opened after renovation, and was selected from a few operators, but lease negotiations fell through. City spokeswoman Tara Finnigan said the parties were unable to compromise on the terms of the lease.

Like Newport, other governments have had trouble signing tenants to fill their beachside concessions stands during the down economy, said Evelyn Tseng, the city's revenue manager.

"Nobody can command the same rents that they used to be able to command," she said.

Kilmer said he operated at Big Corona between 1970 and 2005, and started working there as a teenager picking up trash in 1959.

In his last year of operations, Kilmer said he paid the city about $100,000 in rent.

That is apparently more than what that the city drew from Fuji and temporary concessions in the intervening six years combined, according to city records. The city makes the bulk of its revenue from parking at the beach. It collected nearly $1 million for parking during fiscal 2010.

After the city issued another concessions RFP in March, Kilmer was the only bid. The City Council voted to seek more applicants, and decided to hold off for another summer.

Instead, they brought in gourmet food trucks, such as Flavor Rush and Wahoo's Fish Taco.

Now five operators have applied, including a joint venture between Wahoo's and Zack's, a concessionaire in Huntington Beach that serves burgers and fries. The city hopes to reopen by Memorial Day.

Twitter: @mreicher

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