After a year of listening to the community about what it wants to see in a future Cambodian American Cultural Center, the Long Beach City Council on Tuesday heard a presentation about its options for moving forward, some of which would cost tens of millions to construct.
Long Beach is home to one of the largest populations of Cambodian people outside of Cambodia thanks to immigration to the United States as Cambodians fled the Khmer Rouge regime, which carried out a genocide in the late 1970s. Long Beach’s Cambodian population has fluctuated over the decades but has been estimated to be as high as 50,000.
The City Council voted in September 2021 to start the visioning process for a cultural center for the Cambodian community.
Councilmember Suely Saro, the first Cambodian elected to the City Council, who now represents Central Long Beach, said the inspiration of the cultural center was to remember the Killing Fields of her home country but also to embrace culture and to heal.
“The vision for this is for us to come back to a place of gains rather than loss, to be fulfilled rather than grieve,” she said.
Community members agreed, with a lengthy report showing that residents want the space to highlight the religious beliefs, traditions and healing practices of the culture. Cambodians are largely followers of Buddhism and the first Cambodian Buddhist temple was established in the city in 1985.
Residents also expressed a desire for the center to have some type of economic development element to help improve the local economy.
Public commenters at Tuesday’s meeting said the space should be a place of reflection but also a place where younger generations can reconnect with the culture and traditions of the country they or their parents moved from.
The feasibility study presented to the council Tuesday night said that a center could be in a “steady state” in five years, with an operating budget of about $1 million annually.
About 25% of that could be covered by earned revenue like the 30,000 annual visitors the study projected would visit the space, but the other 75% would have to come from outside sources like government and private contributions, donations, sponsorships and grants.
The study provided cost estimates for the center, which it said could be about 27,000 square feet, with the lower-end cost projection being about $10.3 million for a new building and the high-end being $50 million.
It did not provide an estimate for locating the center in an existing building like the bottom floor of a housing development or adaptive reuse of existing properties. It also did not include an estimate for land acquisition or the purchase or lease of an existing building.
The preferred location for the center is in Cambodia Town, which runs along Anaheim Street, according to the report.
The report noted that putting the center near the Mark Twain Library and McArthur Park, which is near the Killing Fields Memorial, which is still under construction, was a preference from the community.
If the center is built, the types of programming the community said it wants to see there include cooking classes, Khmer performing arts, history exhibitions, youth development and spaces for healing. It could also include a gift shop where traditional Khmer items could be purchased.
Community advocates in favor of the center said Tuesday they plan to form a nonprofit later this year to continue to push for the idea to become a reality.