When Herb Zimmer opened a print shop in San Pedro in 1979, the area still had a bustling economy, despite a decline in the local fishing industry.

Since then, the blue-collar community has lost many of its local businesses and the jobs that came with them the effects of which Zimmer has seen in his PriorityOne Printing, Copying & Graphics shop.

"I'm a small printing business and small businesses are my bread and butter. Whenever small businesses have a slump I slump with them," lamented Zimmer. "Small businesses have been struggling to stay alive."

Zimmer is far from the only local businessman in his predicament.

Over the past several decades, through a combination of neglect and globalization which allows L.A. restaurants to serve fresh seafood from half a world away San Pedro's local economy has been ravaged. The rundown buildings that dot the city landscape serve as reminders of the economic decline.

But even amid the decline, as San Pedro has seen residents lured away by the growing, upscale communities on Palos Verdes Peninsula, the area has retained a tight-knit core of residents and businesses who have striven to rebuild it.

That effort has been assisted by the long housing boom that drove up land values and new residential construction in even blue collar communities such as San Pedro.

"This community is growing," said Camilla Townsend, president and chief executive of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. "We're going through a major renaissance right now."

Indeed, Beverly Hills-based developer Raffi Cohen in August demolished the old, ugly and long vacant Pacific Trade Center building, to clear the way for construction to begin on Vue, a $175-million, ultra-modern high-rise condo tower.

And more recently the Port of Los Angeles released a draft plan for a major waterfront revitalization project, which many locals say holds the potential to rejuvenate the community.

The December proposal, intended to encompass the first few years of development, focuses on expanding existing open space, building parks and improving waterfront access. But there is a fear by local businesses that it gives short shrift to economic development.

That prompted the San Pedro chamber to push an alternative development plan that would push immediate economic development, including 1 million square feet of construction. Townsend said the port's proposal should only serve "as a starting point something local business owners agree on.

"We need to start building the economic infrastructure as soon as possible. We don't want to wait five to seven years," Zimmer said.

Port plan

Local officials and business people are taking the port plan seriously. After all, big dollars are at stake. The port is proposing to spend some $600 million as part of a 36-year plan to improve San Pedro and other communities along nearly nine miles of waterfront the port owns.

Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the port's Board of Harbor Commissioners, said the port is committed to rebuilding the local economy, but in order to do that, the community must first make the area attractive to new businesses.

"The responsibility is on the port to create the kind of environment to attract the kind of development that San Pedro deserves," she said. "I see a value in creating public spaces, getting people to the waterfront, getting the waterfront energized, rather than building all these retail shops."

However, local residents and business leaders are wary after years of failed redevelopment efforts.

In 1994, then-Mayor Richard Riordan appointed a task force to study the San Pedro area and give recommendations that could help the community get back on its feet. The group came back with a plan to build a number of new attractions and revitalize the old Ports O' Call Village.

The village was a popular shopping center when it opened in 1963 but fell into disrepair during the 1980s and 1990s. But Riordan's plan, like others before it, never took off. Moreover, most of the construction that was completed was focused on industrial development, to the detriment of commercial projects.

The chamber's plan would push immediate economic development. Townsend wrote a letter to Knatz last month proposing 1 million square feet of new development, including retail shops, a maritime science and research center, a convention center and a number of other projects.

The business community has been able to draw the support of area Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who believes the port plan, which has been in the works for months, does not adequately emphasize commercial development.

"They're the landlords of this property but I'm going to press for the harbor department to go back to the original vision of the waterfront," she said.

Since being elected in 2001, Hahn has been heavily involved in bringing new development to San Pedro. She said she helped push through the development of more than 1,000 housing units, and earlier this month helped convince the City Council to designate an arts and entertainment district in downtown San Pedro.

"Downtown San Pedro is poised to be a vibrant community and is about to realize its potential," she said. "I think the future prospects are enormous."

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