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Hansen: Dana Point Harbor project still adrift

Perhaps "Fury" is a good metaphor for the Dana Point boaters and merchants who have weathered nearly 20 years of planning battles over the harbor revitalization, which has struggled to break ground.
(David Hansen / Daily Pilot)

There’s a common expression in project management called “scope creep.” It’s when a project starts out small and focused but turns into a giant fur ball.

It happens when good intentions overrule priorities, deadlines, budgets and, eventually, patience. The latest example in Orange County is the Dana Point Harbor revitalization project.

It started out innocently enough in 1997 when the Board of Supervisors created a 23-member task force. Initially, the plans called for a few larger boat slips, improved parking and a remodel of the existing modest hotel. The cost was estimated at $82 million, largely because what was envisioned was a fancy, five-star hotel.

Now, almost 20 years later, there’s been no ribbon cutting or yacht christening. Instead, the project has grown to about $175 million. The hotel plan was largely scrapped in favor of an impressive community plaza along the boardwalk, a boat barn and several thousand square feet of new commercial, office, restaurant and retail space.

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If it’s ever built, the new Dana Point Harbor will be remarkable — at least according to a snazzy, feel-good video on the county’s website.

But for comparison, there’s a full-page graphic in this month’s boating newspaper The Log that lists all of the major marina-related waterfront projects along the Southern California coast.

Guess which project, by far, is the longest running and costliest on the list?

To be fair, the Dana Point Harbor project is complicated. It involves perhaps every government agency and regulation in the book: Orange County, city of Dana Point, California Coastal Commission, California State Lands Commission and California Coastal Zone Act 1972. In addition, there are various parties of interest that are too numerous to name.

Two groups worth mentioning, however, are the boaters and the merchants.

Despite vacant stores over the holidays, building owners in the Dana Point Harbor put up decorations to help keep the mood festive.
(David Hansen / Daily Pilot)

Now, remember that boaters by their nature are usually pretty even-keeled, a go-with-the-flow bunch who would rather be sitting on the dock of the bay. Merchants, meanwhile, just want to stay in business.

Neither group is particularly happy with the way things went down.

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Over the years, the boaters fought and lost over the number of boat slips, among other things. The merchants have been waiting and waiting and waiting for some kind of definitive construction date, but the dates always come and go.

The county says it has just tried to be accommodating to the various stakeholders, plus deal with all the changes. Everyone, of course, likes to blame the Coastal Commission for its seemingly endless meddling.

Meanwhile, Marla Balmuth, who has been at the harbor since 1979, owns two stores across from each other near the ferry to Catalina. She’s been active in the numerous committee meetings, but lately she’s lost steam. Like nearly every merchant I talked to, she’s stopped holding her breath.

“It’s like the boy who cried wolf,” she said. In fact, she was postponing an interior remodel to her woman’s clothing store, Golden Galleon Boutique, but has decided to go ahead with it despite the uncertainty.

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Next door, the owner of Top Brass has similar doubts, saying he’s been there 27 years and most of that time officials have talked about the harbor project. He gave up asking about the details and will only believe it when he sees the bulldozers.

Without fail, the shop owners throughout the harbor have lost interest, worn down by the delays.

One young store manager said the situation boiled down to business versus government. She provided a visual explanation, holding her arms out wide: “Our shovels are this big.” She then brought in her hands to about 6 inches apart and said, “Their shovels are this big.”

Apparently, size matters and so do budgets. With a project this large and this delayed, it was bound to get the attention of an Orange County Grand Jury. In 2014, jurors took a hard look at the history and behind-the-scenes dealings of the harbor project.

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Long story short, while there was some hand slapping, there were no significant, untoward issues except for the fact that more than $20 million has been spent on a revitalization project that hasn’t broken ground. Of that figure, almost half has been paid to the project management company.

“The Grand Jury found all budgetary funding from 2003 to present appropriately allocated,” the report said.

Admittedly, all of this is somewhat old news for those close to the project — the merchants and boaters.

As store leases come up, which happened in June to a large swath of stores in Mariner’s Alley, several business people are not renewing. And with uncertainty about when their stores will be demolished in favor of the new buildings, there are no new takers — so stores sit empty.

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The latest county action is to go out to bid for a “public-private partnership” to try and help shore up the project. Essentially, the county wants a developer to step in and actually do the real work.

Which mean it will be several more months before anything substantial happens at the Dana Point Harbor.

The longest-running project in recent maritime history continues its voyage.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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