San Diego Business Journal

COMMENTARY: State Should Approve SeaWorld Plan

by Martin Hill

When its master plan for future development goes before the California Coastal Commission next month, the future viability of SeaWorld San Diego as a tourist attraction will hang in the balance.

So, too, will a large part of San Diego's viability as a tourist destination. The two are inseparable.

Built in 1964, SeaWorld has become one of San Diego best-known attractions, drawing 35 percent of the region's visiting tourists and responsible for generating $1 billion in local tourist revenues each year. The aquatic park also generates $6 million in transient occupancy taxes annually, as well as $4.4 million in state and county sales tax revenues.

Add to these figures the $6.5 million it pays in annual rent to the city, the $2.5 million in property taxes it pays to the county, and the 10,000 jobs it hosts, and the economic importance of this aquatic marvel is obvious.

Despite its undeniable success, SeaWorld needs to grow. Tourism is a dynamic industry; attractions must grow and change with the whims and needs of their target market, otherwise the interest of potential visitors will wane and, with it, the economic benefits they bring.

SeaWorld's updated master plan proposes four special projects to meet those needs: a new education center, a special events center, a new entryway and a new "Splashdown" ride. It also proposes two possible future projects , a hotel and a parking structure.

For the past four years, SeaWorld officials have willingly jumped through every hoop placed before them to win approval of the park's master plan update. They agreed to pay for a $2.5 million enhancement of the Mission Bay bike path and to a 10-year moratorium on building the proposed hotel, as well as paying for road improvements to accommodate traffic increases in the area.

In addition, they've agreed to City Council demands to limit new structures , including the proposed hotel , to 30 feet in height; any proposed project exceeding that limit must be reviewed by six different bodies.

After being reviewed and approved by no less than five local public agencies, the SeaWorld master plan update goes before the coastal commission Feb. 7. All park officials are asking now is that the commission approve the plan update without more modifications or conditions. Any additional burdens, SeaWorld officials say, could severely impact the future viability of the park, particularly in these tenuous times of war and terrorism.

SeaWorld has long been a vital component of San Diego's economy. Its updated master plan has been studied and modified to mitigate any negative impacts. We urge the coastal commission to approve the park's master plan update without hindrance or delay , not just for the sake of SeaWorld's viability, but for San Diego's as well.

, Martin Hill