Opinion: The last chance to save the Queen? A commission of independent experts

In his annual State of the City address on Jan. 14, Mayor Robert Garcia reaffirmed the city’s vow of love and fealty to the Queen Mary, asserting that, despite some missteps over the ship’s 53-year reign as Long Beach’s signature decommissioned luxury liner and some long-unaddressed repair issues, the ship “is not going anywhere.”

And fast.

It’s difficult to maintain a rosy optimism about the Queen Mary’s future. The ship’s news archive is one long and disappointing saga of carpet-baggery, financial loss, a continuum of carelessness, a never-ending inability to turn it into a money-making tourist attraction and, most recently, something close to a shipwreck with skyrocketing repair costs that have hugely eclipsed the current operator’s woefully low and ludicrously unrealistic estimates and have gone through the city’s $23 million bond for repairs like the money was printed on flash paper.

City Auditor Laura Doud is just this week getting underway in leading an audit on the Queen Mary’s finances, including how the city’s $23 million was spent and a deeper dive into Urban Commons’ wobbly financial statements.

It’s also her department’s sixth audit involving the Queen Mary.

And, while auditing the ship is always a good idea, not much has changed over the years in terms of knowing what, exactly, is going on with the ship.

There are plans already for more studies, both on the ship’s finances and operations, but it’s difficult to place much hope and trust in these when they’re commissioned, once again, by the city and the Queen’s operators.

Will they answer some of the important questions? Does Urban Commons value the Queen simply for its surrounding acreage where the company, along with the production company Goldenvoice, has held several money-making festivals? Is the ship safe, or just safer following an initial series of repairs? What are the latest dreams of Urban Commons for the ship, now that its spectacular glittering sketches of a wonderland of entertainment have been set aside? What about “Queen Mary Island,” with its cafes and bars and its 700,000 square feet of retail space? What about the island’s “ice climbing wall,” surfing, skydiving, and zip lining? And, seriously, is Urban Commons, an L.A.-based real-estate company, in over its head with such an ambitious and expensive project that even Disney couldn’t grapple with and eventually bailed on after losing an average of $7 million to $8 million a year just on maintenance and repairs?

What is needed is a much deeper dive than another audit conducted by Laura Doud and her staff, even one augmented as the current one is, by a team of forensic accountants.

Doud is clearly a more than competent auditor, independently elected to report directly to the citizens of Long Beach, but to do a thorough job in discovering everything there is to discover and uncover about the shape and finances of the Queen Mary, she could use more weapons than are currently available to her, and those weapons could come from a blue-ribbon commission established to study and analyze every aspect of the ship, from stem to stern.

There is a tremendous amount of exceptional talent and brainpower in this city, from financial experts at the Long Beach-based Farmers & Merchants and International City banks, to economics professors at our colleges, to the maritime and admiralty law experts at Keesal, Young & Logan. We’re a city blessed with mechanical and restoration experts and safety professionals from our fire department and insurance companies. We can find the very best to study every aspect of the ship without crossing the city’s borders. And it would be an independent study, not one given to a group for hire whose findings could be tainted by a compulsion to please those who pay them.

And we can talk to others in the business of historical museum ships, such as San Diego’s USS Midway, Alameda’s USS Hornet, the Port of L.A.’s USS Iowa and others to put together a best-practices regimen to ensure that the ship will see another half-century or more, because at the current rate, it won’t.

“Blue-ribbon commission” isn’t just a florid, meaningless term. It pertains to an independent group of people with a high degree of expertise who can carefully analyze and solve particular and specific problems. Long Beach’s “Everyone Home” initiative to address the statewide homelessness crisis and its effects on the city is one local example of the power of a blue-ribbon commission, with representatives from the university, business groups, government officials and others.

And L.A. County has used blue-ribbon commissions or panels to great effect a number of times, including its Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, chaired by then-Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell, to review the nature, depth and cause of the problem of inappropriate use of force by L.A. Sheriff Department deputies in the county’s jails and to recommend corrective action when called for. The county also saw success as a result of other blue-ribbon commissions, including ones on child protections and public safety.

Establishing one such commission to grapple with the half-century of Queen Mary problems could not only be the ship’s long-sought salvation, and help Doud do her job, but also give the mayor and the city political cover of following the commission’s recommendations rather than trying once again to come up with a solution on their own.

It really is difficult to disagree with Garcia’s assessment of the Queen Mary and the fact that “we must preserve it, honor it, and live up to the promise we made 50 years ago.” It’s a promise that we’ve failed miserably to uphold for half a century at a huge drain on our city’s treasury.

Now could come the last chance to make good on that promise with every resource that’s available. It’s time to shape up, or ship out.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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