San Diego Business Journal

Environmentalists have created some pretty great things around town lately: a nationally recognized habitat preserve system, an environmentally sound development plan for Pacific Highlands Ranch near Carmel Valley, and a real ocean pollution monitoring program.

So, it is perplexing why people with the capacity to create so many good things are now focused on tearing down a San Diego institution down to the muddy ground if they get their way.

The institution is SeaWorld, arguably San Diego's No. 1 tourist draw. You know, the tourism industry that environmentalists are supposed to love: a clean industry where the customers leave their money and go home. This is real profit to help fund services like cleaning up our water and fixing sewer lines.

In fact, SeaWorld accounts for a billion dollars a year in economic impact to the San Diego region. The park employs 10,000 people, including vast numbers of college kids, and contributes $14 million a year in rent and taxes to local government.

But, a small group of environmental extremists decided some time ago that they wanted to return Mission Bay to its natural state, which, before SeaWorld, was a world-class swamp. It was SeaWorld that provided most of the money to improve Mission Bay in the first place and now covers the lion's share of the bill to maintain Mission Bay Park.

Now, they found the means to chase Shamu out of town: SeaWorld's new master plan that would bring the 35-year-old park into the 21st century will soon be before the San Diego City Council and the California Coastal Commission for approval.

The plan includes changing the entrance from the bleak parking lot into an inviting marine-oriented front, building an education center that includes dormitories for a summer camp, renovating the drooping marina and constructing a splash-down ride.

The folks who are opposed to the Sea World master plan know very well that if the attraction can't upgrade, it will not be able to compete in the attraction marketplace. Disney, along with Anaheim, has spent billions of dollars to promote tourism. If SeaWorld is unable to compete it will be nothing more than a memory.

This would be a tragedy for the millions of San Diego kids who virtually grew up at SeaWorld and yes, enjoy a little entertainment with their education. Moreover, this would be an economic disaster for the entire region.

But, using bits and pieces out of context from the environmental impact report on the SeaWorld master plan project, SeaWorld's opponents have managed to scare some people who worry about any change to the beloved Mission Bay. Yet, a look at the facts, never as vivid as opposition rhetoric, reveals a far different story.

In fact, SeaWorld is the best environmental resident on Mission Bay, filtering tons of polluted water every year and returning it to the bay cleaner than when they got it. SeaWorld has already employed stormwater run-off treatment measures on the parking lots that will soon be required of all new developments. And, SeaWorld is a consistent recipient of the city's top award for environmentally friendly companies.

SeaWorld is enormously popular in San Diego, and proponents of their new plans for the park far outnumber a small group who just want to say no. And, I'd dare say that a very large part of that support can be found among reasonable, environmentally conscious people.

The image of environmentalists aiming their pitchforks at Shamu cannot ultimately be good public relations for organizations like the Sierra Club that continually must fight charges of extremism. Perhaps they can be persuaded to return to what they do best: defending the environment and leave SeaWorld for the rest of us.

Rauch is chairman of the Emerging Technologies Committee for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and is director of three hospitality associations: San Diego Hotel and Motel Association, San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau.