Hamels of Mission Beach mad at city, ready to quit

Sand scraped, boardwalk cracked

The Hamels are ready to call it quits. After 30 years of running their sportswear and bike rental emporium at the foot of Ventura Place in Mission Beach, brothers Dan and Ray Hamel want to sell their business, Hamel's Action Sports Center, and perhaps the valuable 4000-square-foot corner lot they own outright.

"I'm definitely in the last quarter of the game; in fact, this might be the last two minutes," Dan Hamel says. "I've got things I would like to do; I'd like to do some traveling, and my brother has a ranch in Julian and -- as crazy as it sounds -- is talking about raising llamas. All these years I've been living on a playground, but I feel more like the playground monitor. Now, I want to play."

The beach has changed since July of 1967 when the Hamels opened their shop. In 1986, the amusement park across the street was developed into a shopping center whose vacancy problems have turned Belmont Park into a beacon for transients, Dan Hamel says. Thirty years ago, there were no gangs in Mission Beach and no gang shootings, he says. There were a lot less homeless on the seawall and in the parking lot. There were also less restrictive city codes, which have forced the Hamels to move their sidewalk T-shirt racks indoors, remove the pennants from their shop's fa ade, and reschedule their Miss Mission Beach bikini contest from the weekend to a weekday.

"Mayor Golding talks a lot about the city being 'business friendly,' but I don't think it's business friendly at all," Hamel says as he looks out over the boardwalk from a balcony turret. "[City zoning officials] kept hassling me and hassling me until finally I said, 'Okay, I'll bring the T-shirts in, I'll take the flags down. I know I've been bad.' "

Hamel's frustration with the city goes further. The beach in front of his shop is nearly denuded from the weekday-morning kelp scrapings. A hole in the seawall to allow lifeguard trucks easy access to the sand has put his shop in danger of flooding from high seas. The nearly three-mile-long boardwalk that runs past his shop is in a bad state of neglect, Hamel says. It's pockmarked and cracked, and resurfacing portions of the concrete pathway after the winter storms two years ago backfired. "They resurfaced it slanting the wrong way, so whenever it rains it creates puddles -- and those little holes they put in the bottom aren't big enough for any water to drain out of," Hamel says. "I talked to the old guy, Mr. Phelps, who built the boardwalk, and he said it could last forever, if they would just repair it and service it on a regular basis."

What's more, he says, the foot of Ventura Place, which Hamel calls the "gateway to the Pacific," is a disgrace. "There's litter everywhere and a bunch of derelicts who hang out in front of the lifeguard tower," he says. "My wife and I recently bought an RV, and we go to all these beach communities. Being a businessman at heart, I like to see how they're doing, and the one that's most like Mission Beach is a little town in Oregon called Seaside. You drive right down the middle of downtown, and your first glimpse of the ocean is a statue of Lewis and Clark. People like to jump out and have their picture taken with the statue and the ocean in the background, and the little park around it is also a great place to drop off their kids.

"But here in San Diego, what do we have? The first thing you see is all these signs that say you can't swim here or you can't surf there -- but no sign that says if you get in trouble out in the ocean, raise your hand. There is no diamond lane for jitney buses, no place to lock up your bicycle or motorcycle, no area for skateboarders, and no place to have your picture taken."

To city officials who tell him there's no money for these and other improvements, Hamel has this to say: "Look at what's happening with the stadium. It's another Belmont Park. Can you imagine if I went to the City and said I want to stay at the beach, but there's a chance I will leave, so will you build me a new building? And if I fall below a million dollars in revenue, will you pick up the rest? Can you name any other damn business they're doing that for?"

In the late '60s, the year before Hamel, now 50, and his brother Ray, now 53, came to the beach to do business, Ray had bought ten bicycles at a police auction for $150 apiece. He repaired them and sold them at a hefty profit. He began talking of opening a bike shop on the beach, where he and Dan had grown up on Yarmouth Court, two houses from the ocean, and eventually convinced his brother to join him. For $275 a month, they rented space in the building they now own, which formerly housed a gym, the Health House by the Sea, and opened shop with an inventory of 24 used Stingray bikes and two dozen surfboards.

Dan Hamel recalls making quite a bit of money in the summer -- an average of $125 a day in rentals -- but it was not enough to last through the winter. So he and Ray hung on to their jobs: Dan as a journeyman painter at Jess B. Worthington on 32nd Street and Ray as a sheet-metal maker at Cal Neon. At the time both were making about $5 an hour. It wasn't until 1977 that the Hamels were able to quit their jobs and purchase their two-story building and the land it sits on for just under $300,000. The building and land alone are now worth more than $3 million, Dan Hamel says, while the price tag he's put on the business is another $3 million.

Throughout the 30 years they've been in business, both Hamels have been active in their community. Dan served as vice president of the Mission Beach Town Council and the Mission Beach Business Association. In the 1970s, both Hamels lobbied the city council to build a new lifeguard tower. In the 1980s, they fought to ban alcohol in beach parking lots and clear the brush around the Belmont Park roller coaster to flush out transients. In 1983 and again in '86, they urged the council to supply merchants with sandbags to stave off the high winter storm tides.

In the last decade, Dan Hamel says, battling city hall has become tough. That lesson came in the spring of 1986, when then-councilman Mike Gotch pushed through the council a $14 million commercial development project on the site of the Belmont Park amusement center. The Hamels urged the council to turn the site into a public park, and initially they had Gotch's support. But when Gotch changed his tune in 1985, and the Hamels learned the co-developer was married to the councilman's chief fundraiser, Nancy MacHutchin, the Hamels mounted a petition drive to recall Gotch.

"Belmont Park is the failure we all thought it would be," Hamel says. "There are some businesses that are surviving, but it's nothing like the developers and Mike Gotch said it would be. There's still nothing there for locals -- no place to get a haircut, no place to do your laundry, no place even to catch a movie. There's not one thing in there for locals, and while I have learned over the years to take that tourist dollar, I need the locals. They are my lifeblood. Meanwhile, everyone who made money from Belmont Park is gone, while we're left with a shopping center no one wants."

Now they're battling Councilman Byron Wear over what Dan Hamel says is the city's reluctance to help merchants prepare for the current winter storms and those expected to hit in coming weeks. Specifically, Hamel wants city officials to provide merchants with sandbags and shovels, as they did in 1983 and 1986. But so far, he says, he's been unsuccessful.

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