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Recession Threatens the Original Surf City

5 minute read
Matt Kettmann

With a floundering economy forcing cities nationwide to slash budgets, some municipalities are having to carve out their very souls. A Californian case in point: Santa Cruz. The city is iconic in the history of American surfing. But the city council, faced with a $7 million deficit, voted in December to close the city’s surfing museum, the world’s first and a mecca for locals and tourists alike since it opened in 1986. And it’s not just the surfing musuem. The decision includes shutting down the natural-history museum, a teen center, a community center and a public pool.

But it was the proposed closure of the surfing museum that sounded the loudest alarms. It immediately unleashed a tidal wave of response from surfers worldwide and sparked an emotional campaign to keep the museum afloat. “It came out of the blue. We had no idea,” says Dan Young, 55, of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society, which is spearheading a campaign to save the institution. “My phones started ringing. E-mails started flying. We basically said, ‘Hell, no! This ain’t gonna happen!” (See 10 things to do in San Francisco.)

For Santa Cruzans like Young, the small, 900-sq.-ft., free-admission museum — which is housed in an old lighthouse overlooking the world-famous Steamer Lane surf break, just up the coast from the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk — is much more than a repository for old photographs, torn wet suits and beaten-up longboards. It’s a reminder that Santa Cruz was the first place surfing occurred in the continental United States, when, in 1885, three Hawaiian princes who were attending a nearby military school rode waves on redwood boards. In the ensuing years, Santa Cruz became headquarters for surfboard shapers and wet-suit makers and fostered an entirely new beach culture, one that’s become popular even in landlocked locales. The city even once sued Huntington Beach in Southern California over the rights to the name “Surf City.” (Both cities continue to use the nickname.) (See a picture of Barack Obama bodysurfing.)

“It’s a pleasant little museum,” says Young, who helped found the museum with the surviving members of the original Santa Cruz Surfing Club, which began in 1936. “People who come out of there, even nonsurfers, they come out with a big smile on their faces.” And a cheap one, it turns out, only costing about $20,000 per year, money that’s almost entirely used to pay two part-time employees. So the society contacted the city and found out that it would take $10,000 to keep the museum open until June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society, which was officially and fortuitously incorporated as a nonprofit in October 2008, is now soliciting contributions.

So on the sunny afternoon of Jan. 8, the society accepted a $4,000 check from Jack O’Neill, the eye-patch-wearing inventor of the modern wet suit. It has since raised nearly all of the $10,000 and has a series of concerts and film screenings lined up to keep the money flowing and assure a future past June 30. “If a surfer gets an idea, you’ve got to step aside,” explained Young. “We don’t take no for an answer. We’ll go right through you.”

The surf-museum campaign also inspired community support to save the other threatened properties. At a Jan. 13 meeting, the city council unanimously approved the various plans to keep them all open until June 30. But it also warned the community organizations, including Young’s society, that they would have to keep raising money to keep the doors open longer than that.

That’s because Santa Cruz’s financial woes aren’t going away soon, even if the national economy swings back. After shedding the museums, centers and pool, the city still needs to cut another $3 million by Feb. 1, according to Dannettee Shoemaker, the city’s director of parks and recreation. “It’s worse now than I ever remember it,” says Shoemaker, who’s been with the city since 1968, “and I don’t think anyone would argue with me on that.”

Oddly enough, what the surf museum represents — the desire to remain a charming surf town — might be part of what’s causing the city’s financial wipeout. “In Santa Cruz, we’re built out. Our community enjoys the luxury of being a quaint little seaside town,” Shoemaker explains, but that means there’s “not much opportunity to generate revenue.” Tourism is the biggest industry, but that’s not paying the bills, she says, especially with sales-tax dollars sliding during the recession. Projects that would have brought in more revenue, such as big-box stores, conference centers and hotels, have been rejected by the citizens and voted down by the council. “The costs have continued to exceed revenue,” she says. “It caught up with us.”

No one knows for sure whether Santa Cruz will be able to remain a quaint surf town and still pay the bills. But there is hope, thanks to its population of hearty and headstrong surfers like Young. “When it gets bigger,” he explained, “we just paddle harder.”

See 10 things to do in Los Angeles.

See pictures of Presidents at the beach.

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