A vast marine research facility that officials at the Port of Los Angeles unveiled last week could do more than promote academic studies planners hope it will stimulate an economic rebirth in San Pedro.

Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the port, has been working behind the scenes to generate support for the project, which would be built on a 28-acre patch of land currently serving as a petrochemical terminal. The site, adjacent to downtown San Pedro, is a key battleground in the port's waterfront development efforts.

"We have this vision of a premier research institution that attracts people from around the world," Knatz said. "We're talking about bringing a new industry to San Pedro and new jobs. These are good, high-paying jobs that would be a boost to the San Pedro economy."

The proposed research facility could include academic laboratories, government research facilities and a fish hatchery along with real estate for future maritime-related businesses. Ideally, Knatz said, the facility would become a global leader in the study of climate change and sea level rise.

"This is the kind of thing that over the long term can lead to an economic wealth cycle for the community," said Herb Zimmer, chairman of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce committee to promote waterfront economic development. "It breeds ideas and innovations and things that are going to become the basis of the new economy."

Zimmer, owner of PriorityOne Printing, Copying & Graphics in downtown San Pedro, opened his shop 28 years ago and said he has seen the local economy deteriorate as years of neglect and the decline of the once-thriving fishing industry have eliminated many jobs from the blue-collar community.

"I want to see the ports replace the jobs that we lost during the 70s," he said.

The port is currently in the middle of a multi-year San Pedro waterfront improvement project, which includes the construction of a cruise ship promenade and the development of parks and walkways. In all, the redevelopment efforts span 400 acres.

As part of those efforts, the port evicted New Orleans-based liquid bulk operator Westway Terminal Co. Inc., which has occupied the site since 1996. Under the deal, the port bought out the remaining 18 years of Westway's contract for $17 million.

The existing Southern California Marine Institute, a partnership of 10 schools, could move from its cramped space to the new center.

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