“Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance”
- The Four Preps, “Twenty-Six Miles (Santa Catalina)”
You can’t spend as much time as I have in the waters off Southern California and not fall in love with Catalina Island. Just a stone’s throw from the mainland, and visible – on a good day – from much of SoCal, Catalina is in many ways locked in time. It’s an island with an impressive history, and not a little controversy.
Recently, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about some future plans for the island. Somehow (*cough* I don’t read the rag any more *cough*), it slipped by me, but I caught it in their archives. Apparently, the Santa Catalina Island Company, after decades of yawning indifference, has decided to remake Avalon – and in a big way. More on that in a moment after a quick history lesson.
Entrepreneurs have long been drawn to Catalina, each with their own vision of riches. From mining to cattle to pottery to movies, many different industries have had their momentary flush of success. The only real long-term success story has been tourism. Ever since William Wrigley used some of the family gum money to buy the island in 1919, he and his decendants have looked for the right way to do it. Seldom do the ideas come without controversy.
Currently, the majority of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, having been donated by the Wrigley family in 1975. The SCI Company still owns 11% of the island (otherwise referred to as “the good part”), and the remainder is the town itself. Avalon has always been a seasonal tourist destination, but with the arrival of cruise ships for port calls a decade ago, tourism has become a serious year-round enterprise. Now, the Company would like to develop some of its assets surrounding the town to tap into some of that money.
Some short-term projects — a zip line that will whisk customers by cable from a mountain peak to the beach and an underwater “Sea Trek” attraction that will let people walk through kelp forests while wearing helmets attached to air hoses — are being funded by the company and are expected to open this summer.
The largest projects, such as the hotel and golf course, would be funded by other developers and investors. The island company would provide the land. These ventures, company officials said, would not be launched until some recovery is seen in the hotel and resort industry.
The projects, which company officials said could total $500 million over the next decade, would be among the most expensive planned or underway in Los Angeles County. The aim is to revitalize the 1-square-mile city of Avalon, spurring growth without destroying its nostalgic charm.
Among the projects being considered is expanding the existing 9-hole golf course into a full 18-hole Jack Nicklaus design, rebuilding the long-lost Hotel Catherine in Descanso Bay, and adding additional hillside condominiums. If implemented, the changes would represent the biggest transformation to the Avalon landscape in decades. As you might imagine, that brings out emotional responses on both sides.
Avalon has always been described as “quaint,” and there are those who fear the changes designed to attract additional tourists – and the tourists themselves – will destroy that image forever. At the same time, Avalon is a town with significant issues, from limited low- and middle-income housing to crumbling infrastructure, issues that demand money to resolve. I believe the consensus of the town’s residents is to move forward, but there is a clear sense of trepidation.
Here’s hoping the march towards progress comes with a slow hand on the throttle and a steady hand on the tiller. Improvements done right could enhance Avalon and help it thrive in the future, but done wrong could destroy a century of history.