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By James Lenthall
I am starting this column on Sunday evening as I watch the sun set on our harbor for the last time before we hand the keys over to a private firm to rebuild and operate this place for the rest of most of our lives. I will finish this column after the deal is done. And by the time you read this, the ink will have dried on the 66-year master lease with Dana Point Harbor Partners; with it, a promise to invest more than $300 million to revitalize Dana Point Harbor.
In 1997, then-5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson hosted a series of community meetings to kick off the Dana Point Harbor Revitalization Plan. Those in the room at the time believed that within 10 years we’d have a new harbor, with all new shops, restaurants and marina. That was 21 years ago. Those of you born then can raise a toast now to the future of our harbor.
Let’s go back even further, to 1961, when the state of California granted this stretch of coast in trust to the County of Orange to develop and operate as a recreational boat harbor, with strict rules governing its future – rules that still apply today and put us on the path to the transformative events happening this week. Dana Point Harbor is and always will be a publicly owned amenity, with obligations to promote affordable coastal access and provide continuing benefit to our community. Nothing in this 66-year lease changes that.
For the first 18 years after Supervisor Wilson inaugurated the goal to rebuild our harbor, the county aimed to keep this entirely under its own roof – a massive public works project using county funds. The thing is, Dana Point Harbor operates financially independent of the rest of the county, supporting itself with revenue raised primarily from boat slip fees and tenant rents, without subsidy from the County of Orange general fund. After nearly two decades of planning and saving, our harbor was accumulating funds slower than the project costs were escalating, and by 2015 the harbor’s savings account was still nearly $200 million short. We were going backwards.
Enter Lisa Bartlett. Elected in 2014, new 5th District Supervisor Bartlett brought to the Harbor Revitalization Plan a conviction that private industry could accomplish what government could not. In the spring of 2016, the county introduced a plan to partner with a private developer to renovate our harbor. In return for an investment now exceeding $300 million, Dana Point Harbor Partners would be rewarded with a 66-year master lease to recover their investment. And here we are.
It’s now Monday morning, Oct. 29 and I continue to claw away at this column amid a flurry of texts, emails and calls settling last-minute details before the harbor lease and redevelopment agreement is finalized later today. The dealing is never done until the deal is done. And this deal is challenged by the truth that there are effectively three parties to this negotiation: the County of Orange, Dana Point Harbor Partners and the community this project serves. Gratefully. Though no doubt a complicating factor to the efficiency of closing this deal, community participation has enhanced the evolution of the project and benefited the ultimate plan enshrined in the final lease documents. A plan constrained in scope and with faith to the historic charm and character of Dana Point Harbor.
It’s now Monday evening, and I’m sitting at Coffee Importers watching the sun set on our harbor for the first time with Dana Point Harbor Partners as our new landlord. The text came in moments ago – the lease is signed, the deal is done. Sixty-six years and $330 million dollars. Hmm. It’s anti-climactic. This place looks and feels the same. No fireworks. No cheers. No champagne. At least not here. Today passed quietly by in the harbor. Exhale.
It’s now Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, and yesterday’s developments are settling in and gaining clarity. It will take some months before we see the evidence around us, but yesterday’s milestone event is the most transformative moment in our harbor’s history since the day in 1966 when the first stones were set for the breakwater surrounding our harbor. This week is a pivot point where we transition from making a deal to revitalize Dana Point Harbor, to actually revitalizing Dana Point Harbor. “Now the work begins,” I’ve heard a dozen times over the past 24 hours. What have we been doing these past 21 years!? It sure felt like work. The point is, now we move on to implementing the plans we’ve so arduously developed over the past years. Turning concepts into final plans. Turning final plans into permit applications. Obtaining permits and breaking ground. And all along the way, our Dana Point Harbor community engaged in the process.
It’s now late Tuesday, and I ponder this week’s events as I conclude this column. I’ll hit “send” in a moment, then move on to tomorrow with excitement, a little trepidation and a deep breath to prepare for all the work ahead.
James Lenthall is a lifelong Dana Point resident and boater, and presently serves as president of the Dana Point Boaters Association, chair of the Dana Point Harbor Advisory Board, and as a director on the board of Dana Point Yacht Club.