A 900-foot-long, 70-year-old battleship is the biggest thing coming to San Pedro. But a tiny Catholic liberal arts college that has set up shop in the neighborhood is a close second.

The U.S.S. Iowa is expected to bring nearly a half-million visitors a year to the San Pedro waterfront when it arrives in nine months, while Marymount College is bringing just a few hundred students as it expands.

But boosters of San Pedro’s struggling downtown see both as opportunities to turn the area into a bustling tourism and arts center that past redevelopment efforts failed to produce.

“They’re the two biggest happenings in downtown San Pedro,” said Eric Eisenberg, president of downtown San Pedro’s business improvement district. “They’re both so huge for our downtown region.”

The U.S. Navy announced last month that the Iowa, which launched in 1942 and served in World War II, the Korean War and Persian Gulf, would make the nearby Port of Los Angeles its final home as a naval museum.

Marymount, which has its main campus in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, has begun offering classes in multiple locations to about 150 students in downtown San Pedro, a once-thriving business district that has been in decline since the 1960s.

After decades of revitalization attempts that failed because of poor planning or bad timing, business leaders see the coming of students and tourists as their best hope for success.

The idea is that Marymount’s presence will help change downtown’s hardscrabble image and help it cash in on the surge of tourists expected to visit the Iowa. After all, if enough students hang around downtown, it will create a sense of greater activity and safety there, giving others the cover they need to visit and explore.

Indeed, there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the community’s business and arts communities these days – even though some locals count among the skeptics. And one outside expert said boosters shouldn’t get their hopes too high.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of policy, planning and development at USC, said a young, artistic crowd can help turn blighted neighborhoods into thriving ones but she stressed that those neighborhoods also need quality attractions.

“Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Venice Beach, all those were places where the first wave were young artistic types and college kids,” she said. “But just because there are college kids there, that doesn’t mean people are going to come. They need to do something to make it compelling.”

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