Orange County Supervisors today will consider the largest public subsidy in recent memory, as much as $45 million, from the Dana Point Harbor reserves to spur parking for a host of new commercial, hotel and marina improvements at the regional harbor.

The changes could create California’s largest public marina.

Oddly enough, staff is suggesting that county supervisors first decide on what development team they like, kicking the can down the road on key sticking points about the subsidy – which will effectively cloak the talks in secrecy as part of private negotiations with the new master lease operator.

Two competing proposals in front of Orange County Supervisors Tuesday treat public subsidies as a forgone conclusion.


Why should Orange County taxpayers accept any level of public subsidy for developers who stand to make a solid profit off a harbor revitalization plan?

It’s Dana Point. Not a toxic dump.

Why should any state tidelands funds provided by users for the maintenance and operation of the harbor be used to build parking garages for commercial developments?

Most importantly, what are the true traffic impacts from getting more sales taxes out of that marina area?

And who’s telling the truth about the real trade offs and costs?

Now, County executives are suggesting county supervisors approve a development team, Dana Point Harbor Partners, which is seeking a $20 million public subsidy from the harbor reserves as opposed to their rivals – Dana Point Partners, which want $45 million.

That’s a pretty wide variance for the same project.

And keep in mind…these are the starting estimates, which rarely remain unchanged.

The two bidding teams are very close in name – and have even shared similar consultants, according to recent lobbyist registration filings, some of which now seem outdated (something for our new ethics commission to review).

At one point, both sides were working together until they broke apart with a different array of partners.

Both proposals want to remake a county-owned hotel that has been seriously mismanaged, according to county auditors, redo dock facilities that badly need updating and improve commercial corridors to offer visitors more amenities.

Yet there are real differences in their approaches.

The Dana Point Harbor Partners proposal seeks a lower subsidy amount – $20 million – according to staff, but given that the staff report states their parking garage could be two or three stories it’s unclear what the final price tag could be.

It also offers a set rent schedule that could provide nearly $50 million in lease revenues over the next ten years.

The Dana Point Partners proposal seeks a larger public subsidy, up to $45 million in initial estimates, arguing that a series of infrastructure improvements will be required that the other proposal doesn’t include.

It’s rent schedule is tied to gross revenues and would generate more than $70 million over the same period.

One side, Dana Point Harbor Partners, is offering to work with the county under one lease, where hotel, dock and commercial operations are connected.

Dana Point Partners wants to work with the county under different leases for each use, something county staff doesn’t favor.

The seawalls creating Dana Point harbor were first created in 1968 and almost immediately had unintended consequences, ostensibly killing off a historic surf spot, known as Killer Dana. The harbor also impacted nearby beaches, which were for many years listed as some of the state’s most polluted with bacteria.

From 1971 to 1975, the surrounding area, with harbor facilities with shops, shipyards and hotels, was built out.

In many ways, the area looks stuck in that era.

Changing the look of the harbor area has been a longstanding debate in South County with one of the first task forces set up in 1997. County supervisors approved a revitalization plan back in 2006, just a few years after I arrived from the San Diego Union Tribune to cover the Board of Supervisors for the Orange County Register.

It’s been debated ever since. There have been lots of hearings and disagreements.

Parking, the commercial corridor development and boat storage are a few of the sticking points I recall.

This time around, I see that the Dana Point Boaters Association and the Dana Point Harbor Merchants Association are on the same page and supporting the proposal by Dana Point Harbor Partners and the proposed $20 million subsidy.

Now, credit goes to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett for continuing to help move the process along to this point.

Yet where are we really going?

That’s the main question I keep posing to county officials.

Delaying the real answers to the subsidy question is a mistake.

Indeed, the newly proposed county harbor commission should get involved in figuring out what’s the right mix.

At the county’s downtown Santa Ana civic center, with large buildings being built in record time, there still are big questions about how the space ultimately will be used by the public.

Yet there’s no vehicle for that discussion.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson shot back at me in a recent interview, arguing that the new building is largely a question about workers and how they use their space.

He’s proud of how fast the county has moved to implement such a major project.

Yet what about child care facilities for workers?

What about exercise facilities?

There are nearly 20,000 workers who impact Santa Ana’s quality of life every day – for the better.

They lead just by being.

So where are they leading to?

Just like the harbor, it’s imperative our public officials think big picture and that means involving the public in planning early – even if it does create delays or trigger tough discussions on things like subsidies.

They’re the real end-user.

They also pay the bills.

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