Imagine the City of Long Beach without the Queen Mary. Long Beach City Manager James C. Hankla tried to do just that and found the notion dreadful to contemplate.
Hankla led the fight to keep the Queen Mary in town, battling an offer by Japanese investors, who pledged $40 million in repairs for the 1930s-era ocean liner in exchange for sending it to Tokyo Bay for three to five years. The Long Beach City Council instead voted last week to look for other ways to finance $32 million in repairs for the ship-turned-hotel.
That Hankla’s view on the Queen Mary carried the day should come as no surprise. For the past decade, the council has followed his recommendations on a number of big-money items which have remade the city’s economic landscape including the $100 million convention center, the adjacent Long Beach Arena and the $150 million Aquarium of the Pacific, which is currently under construction.
That track record has given Hankla, a former chief administrative officer of L.A. County, a reputation as one of the most effective and controversial city officials in Southern California.
Hankla’s legislative effectiveness will face new challenges, following last week’s ruling by a L.A. Superior Court judge against plans by the Port of Long Beach to build a shipping terminal for the China Ocean Shipping Co. on the site of the former Long Beach Naval Station.
Question: What will Long Beach do now that the court has ruled against plans to build the Cosco project?
Answer: We’re left with an appeal which I think will be successful. All this starting and stopping is basically nonsense. And at some point in time, the court is going to agree that it’s nonsense.
The reality is that the only practical use of that property is (to use it) to expand the largest container port in America. It serves the interest of the city.
Q: But is Cosco willing to wait through a lengthy appeal process?
A: (The decision) ultimately will be overturned. But the time it will take to get the appeal heard will be critical here. Whether the timing is such that we can preserve the Cosco project remains to be seen. I would hope that Cosco will be patient, but I don’t know.
Q: The Port of Los Angeles has made overtures to Cosco. How concerned are you about that?
A: I’d be surprised if they didn’t. And I have to say, if we couldn’t get Cosco, God forbid, I’d want them to be in Los Angeles. This is an issue for the regional economy. There aren’t fences here. We’re all in this regional economy together.
Q: In addition to trade, Long Beach is staking its future on tourism which brings us to the Queen Mary. It’s been something of a money pit for Long Beach. Why did you fight so hard to keep it?
A: The Queen Mary is an icon, a symbol. It is uniquely Long Beach. It’s in the same category as the St. Louis arch, the Eiffel Tower. It’s not something that on its own has to make money.
Now, all that aside, I’d like it to make as much money as it can. But I also believe that the Japan “adventure” was just that and I don’t believe that municipalities belong in adventures.
Q: What troubled you about the proposal?
A: I’m not convinced, no matter how many engineering reports I have, that the Queen Mary could have made the journey safely. I’m not risk-averse. I’ve taken a few risks. But I felt that the risk of the ship traveling to Japan and coming back safely was too big.
Q: So how are you going to pay for the refurbishing?
A: We know we can come up with the first $11 million of the $32 million bill to refurbish the ship. And that’s not too bad. We can get a third of the way there today.
The city currently has $7 million in a repair and refurbishing fund for the Queen Mary. We would commit $5 million of that for heating, air conditioning, ventilation and fire safety system improvements, provided that Mr. (Joseph) Prevratil (the Queen Mary’s operator), commits $6 million for renovation of the hotel which he has said he is willing to do.
As for the other $21 million, we would enter into an agreement to develop 45 vacant acres adjacent to the ship, which would produce rent of some magnitude, which would be earmarked for ship repairs.
Q: What kind of development would that be?
A: Mr. Prevratil is proposing an attraction called “Futureport.” It would consist of three components the port of the future, the port of the past and a number of highly modern attractions, such as virtual reality, as well as a maritime museum and traditional amusement park attractions, like the Cyclone Racer.
Q: Is there a market for that kind of attraction?
A: I think we ought to find out.
Q: You seem to approach your job more like a chief executive officer than as a bureaucrat.
A: Most city managers aren’t bureaucrats. By their very nature, they are problem-solvers. The most successful ones are very entrepreneurial.
I don’t really have any problem with bureaucrats. They have a role, and that is to be the brakes. The city manager’s role is to be an accelerator. And that’s how I see my role. I believe that major cities either go forward or they go backward. They never stand still.
Q: In L.A. County, you have dozens of municipalities competing for the same jobs and industries. How has that changed the role of the city manager?
A: Folks say government should run more like a business. The city manager-form of government is about as close to a corporate form as you can get. The city council sets the policy, and then holds the city manager accountable for achieving those policies. The mayor acts as chairman of the board and, under our form of government, does not muddle the administration. If you take a look at the huge failures, the problem is politicians muddling in administration whether it’s the MTA, or other very large governments that we could probably name, but won’t.
Q: Let’s name one. Los Angeles is in the midst of re-thinking its form of government. Based on your experience in Long Beach, what would work best in L.A.?
A: I believe very strongly in a format where there is a chief executive officer who is accountable to a board of directors for his performance. One of the big things that differentiates Long Beach from Los Angeles is the entire management structure works for me. That means I can get this organization marching in the same direction at the same time with one phone call.
Q: Doesn’t that leave the public out of the process?
A: You have to decide what form of government you want. We can have an endless debating society or we can move government forward and accomplish things. There is ample opportunity for the public to be heard. But you can simply have too much talk. You’re never going to be able to satisfy all the people and you’re never going to satisfy the most vocal opponents.