6:49 PM PST, November 12, 2011
We understand and respect preservationists' desire to restore a key section of the Balboa Fun Zone to the grandeur of its heyday. We too miss the Scary and Dark Ride, the bumper cars, the merry-go-round and other amusements on the site where the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum plans to build its ambitious ExplorOcean exhibit.
And we applaud the Corona del Mar High School students who took their opinions to the Fun Zone a week ago to protest the museum's expansion plans. We'd like to see more young people involved in civic activism. It is our hope that when the museum is built, a section of it will pay homage to what stood on that section of the Fun Zone for so many years before. That would be a nice nod to the locals, who treasure the way Newport was, "before it was 'The O.C.,'" as they say on Facebook.
That said, we think an expanded nautical museum can coexist with the remaining elements of the past. The truth is, we doubt the charms of some favored attractions — or the eras to which they belonged — will ever return. Times have changed, as have the expectations of tourists who visit Balboa. We understand that the land needs to be economically viable for those who own it.
So let's look at the potential. There is an opportunity for ExplorOcean to give the peninsula a modern museum and educational experience, one that draws tourists and gives locals a place to bring their children. We haven't done the market research to know whether this proposal is likely to succeed or fail, but there is often a multiplier effect with new cultural attractions, meaning new businesses often want to locate near them. That could pump a little economic life into the area.
Also relevant in this discussion is the fact that the land is not owned by the public. We believe strongly in the rights of property owners, in this case the nautical museum, providing they comply with zoning laws and city codes, and do not cause undue burden on the neighborhood.
That is not to say the community should have no voice in the property's future, and that part of Balboa in a symbolic sense belongs to us all, but there appears to be little reason in the public interest to block the museum from realizing its vision. It is true that we, as well as those CdM students, may do something different with the property, but again, it's not our land, and it's not the public's, so we think it's best to hope for a successful museum expansion.
ExplorOcean won't impact many of the Fun Zone area's best-loved attractions. That is an important fact. Too many people believe, incorrectly, that all of the Fun Zone and nearby landmarks are slated for demolition. That's just not true. The Balboa Pavilion, Ferris wheel, ferry and at least one arcade, are not threatened by the development. The museum is expanding only its own property.
There will still be frozen bananas, Balboa bars, pizza by the slice and Skee Ball — features that are in their own way part of Newport's cultural makeup. We think it was a mistake to let go of the old carousel, and some of the already-gone amusements, but it's too late to save them now.
Will ExplorOcean work? Will it revitalize the area? Will it bring in enough visitors to help preserve the characteristics that so many Newport folks treasure?
We're not certain. However, we see an opportunity here to move the museum forward without disrupting the few remaining cultural treasures at the Fun Zone. And we can all "save" what remains of the Fun Zone by supporting the attractions we want to see remain. We can take ferry rides, play arcade games and ride the Ferris wheel in support of preserving the area's unique charm and culture.