This is part of an ongoing series exploring every Orange County city.
Being a city manager in most any place is heady, rewarding and, OK, demanding. But being a city manager in a town with pirates, knights in shining armor and Knott’s Berry Farm?
Well that’s just downright fun, especially when development – such as a butterfly pavilion, of all things – that’s been wanted for decades finally starts to fall into place.
Other current construction is more, well, down to earth. It includes a new mall with 428,000 square feet of retail space as well as 700 new housing units in high-density developments scattered around the city.
Buena Park City Manager Jim Vanderpool takes a bite out of his burger at Rock & Brews, a 3-month-old rock ’n’ roll-themed restaurant next to Knott’s. He pulls out his smartphone and shows a photo: At the restaurant, Vanderpool stands between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of the band KISS.
“How cool is that?” Vanderpool asks. It’s way cool, I agree, having gone to a KISS concert last winter. Heck, it’s fun just walking into Rock & Brews. The front door handles are made of guitar necks and are autographed by rock stars, including Simmons.
But getting Rock & Brews and, soon, the butterfly pavilion as well as a of host of other tourist attractions and improvements took hard work, tough negotiations and millions of city dollars.
It’s all part of a facelift that council members believe will make Buena Park the tourist destination they’ve wanted since the last century.
Orange County amusement park aficionados, if you will, are divided into two camps. There are Disneyland fans, and there are Knott’s families. Since I was 4 years old, my parents were Knott’s people.
For my father it was less about the rides – my first was the stagecoach at Knott’s – than it was about tasty treats. Dad loved, and still loves, Knott’s boysenberry syrup. Back in the day, you couldn’t order it on the Internet or buy it at your local grocery store; you had to drive to Knott’s.
When my own children were young, they fell in love with Camp Snoopy. A few years later the highlight was Bigfoot Rapids.
Today, unless it’s October and Knott’s Scary Farm time, the park’s focus is on roller coasters and thrill rides. And that is working out just fine for Knott’s, which added Soak City on the eve of the millennium.
But the secret to capturing tourist dollars for cities is bed taxes. And some of the aging attractions outside Knott’s weren’t cutting it.
The Japanese Village and Deer Park was the first to go, closing in 1975. Movieland Wax Museum, once the largest wax museum in the country with more than 300 figures, had 10 million visitors over 43 years. But attendance dropped, and the place closed a decade ago.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum needed a makeover and the city hoped it could convince the company to add an aquarium, as it did in Gatlinburg, Tenn. No such luck. The museum shuttered its doors in 2009.
Sacramento’s decision to kill redevelopment funds made matters worse. Instead of getting $25 million a year for redevelopment, Buena Park had a one-time giveback of $50 million.
Several years into the recession, the future looked bleak. Blight was setting in. “We were extremely concerned,” Vanderpool shares. “Our future was unknown.”
With Foreigner blaring “I Want To Know What Love Is” from some seriously powerful speakers at Rock & Brew, Vanderpool looks around the restaurant, points to Amaya, a restaurant across Beach Boulevard, and grins.
“We had to get out of our comfort zone to bring in new things,” Vanderpool says. He and other city officials attended entertainment conventions, visited different attractions. “I’ve got to credit our City Council and staff for completing our vision.”
That vision saw the city buying more than 20 acres of dilapidated property at market value along Beach Boulevard, tearing down old buildings and leaving vacant lots for new development.
Construction will start this summer on the butterfly pavilion, a 53,000-square-foot entertainment venue with real butterflies and hummingbirds. It replaces the old Movieland.
Porto’s Bakery, an 18,000-square-foot cafe, will see construction start in three months and is expected to pull in 2 million customers a year.
Marking the first hotel built in Buena Park in nearly a decade, Hotel Stanford a 10-story, 150-room hotel will start going up in late spring. Construction will start during the summer on Star ALoft, a six-story, 150-room hotel.
Pointing to Beach Boulevard, the city manager explains that an unusual agreement with the state gave the city rights to Beach Boulevard from I-5 to the city’s southern border. Soon, sidewalks will be widened, trees planted and other amenities such as benches added.
The idea, Vanderpool explains, is to offer a resort feel by allowing people to walk from their hotel to a variety of restaurant and entertainment attractions.
“We keep reinventing ourselves,” Vanderpool says. “All in all, the process has played out well.”
HOTELS, HOUSING AND MORE
Rebuilding the area around Knott’s is only part of the plan to improve Buena Park. Other major efforts focus north of the 91 freeway. They include affordable housing and a new, $325 million multiuse project called The Source.
Along with retail, The Source will see residential units in a future phase and a five-story office tower and a 175-room Hilton hotel opening late next year.
Vanderpool points out that the various projects will pump in more sales and property tax revenue.
He explains Knott’s already helps generate sales taxes as well as $5.5 million in bed taxes, or 10 percent of the city’s revenues. He stresses Buena Park’s core economic engine will continue to be its car dealerships.
“We need to have a well-balanced community to be thriving economically.”
To that end, Vanderpool allows he is especially excited about the diversity of one development that mixes 26 affordable units with 128 regularly priced townhomes. “It’s very urban in terms of density.”
As we head back to city hall, we pass an Orchard Supply store. The city manager marvels, “How amazing is that to see an Orchard Supply in Buena Park? It speaks to the evolving reputation of our community.”
For a moment, his remark perplexes. The Butterfly Pavilion, I get. Sort of. But a slightly upscale hardware store?
Then I discover Orchard Supply stores are located in cities considered on the rise, places like Cerritos, Yorba Linda, Irvine.
Not bad company for a city that once mourned losing a deer park.
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