—— Tell us a little about what the San Diego Visitor Information Center is and does?
Well our center is located on Mission Bay Drive and we focus on assisting visitors with their vacation needs. In particular, we offer discounted attraction tickets to all of San Diego’s theme parks, including Seaworld, the S.D. Zoo, Wild Animal Park, Legoland, as well as, discounts of up to 50% on San Diego hotel and motel reservations. In addition to saving people time and money we also have a gift shop, free brochures of things to see and do, and a helpful staff to answer any questions people may have about our beautiful city.
—— How did you come upon the idea for a tourist information center in San Diego?
Well I was in the outdoor advertising business and in 1962 I was transferred to San Diego to run Pacific Outdoor Advertising Company’s San Diego operation. You’ve got to understand that at that time there was no Interstate-5... we only had Highway 101 connecting LA to San Diego. It ran down through Rose Canyon and all along the canyon were billboards... and there were a lot of them. Every major tourist attraction had a billboard and some of them were quite extravagant. Vacation Village had rocking V’s, The El Cortez had a little glass elevator that ran up and down and Anthony’s had a huge gorgeous purple sailfish. Well I knew that once I-5 was built, with eight lanes of freeway, that there was no more commercial land available there and that all of the billboards would be gone... and they are! In the early years I lived, and still do, overlooking Mission Bay, on the west side of Rose Canyon. Back then it was called Government Hill because a number of City officials lived there; the Chief Administrative Officer of the County, two of the City Mangers, the fella who was in charge of sign control, and the Information Officer for the City Manager’s office. Well every Sunday night I would see the endless stream of Angelinos in stop-and-go traffic headed north out of San Diego back to LA.
In the advertising business we have a so-called “bible” called Advertising Age. Sometime in 1967 they happened to run an article stating that a Mr. Stoner, of Stoner Outdoor Advertising had erected two information kiosks, one on either side of Des Moines, Iowa on Interstate 80, and I thought, “My goodness... if you can do that commercially for Des Moines, Iowa you could do that for San Diego!” And that’s how I came up with the idea of taking the billboards out of Rose Canyon and putting them in a building, and having people come in to see the ads and get other information. So one 3-day weekend I flew to Des Moines, rented a car, drove out to one of the kiosks, took a look a round, talked with the gentleman manning it, flew back and decided that’s what I’d like to do.
—— Where did you start?
Well being that I was in the outdoor advertising business and that every two years many of the city officials needed to put up signs, I was on a first name basis with quite a few of the government officials. So after putting this whole idea together, one Saturday I called the public information officer and asked if I could come over and run an idea past him. I sat down and explained the idea to him... and he liked it and asked, “Where do you have in mind to place this information center?” I told him I thought the top of the hill before you start down into Rose Canyon would be a good place and he said, “Well Ted you know that there is going to be an interchange at Clairmont Drive and the new I-5. Why don’t you put it there?” and I said “Hell of an idea!” which is where I wanted to put it all along (smiling).
—— So you had the idea and a location, but how did you pay for all of this?
I knew I would need financing, and the first thing I did was to go to my employer Pacific Outdoor Advertising Co. and they said they wanted a piece of the action, and I agreed. I had to do that because otherwise I’d be operating behind their back, and I don’t operate that way. That being settled, I then went to Clarence K. Fletcher, who was Chairman of the Board of Home Federal Savings and Loan and who’s advertising manager at the time was Gordon Luce. So I told Charlie Fletcher that I wanted to borrow $125,000 to build a one-purpose building, on leased land, for the first information center west of Des Moines, Iowa. It was humungous amount of money, but Charlie said okay and I had the majority of my funding. I then proceeded to hire an architect. At the time the east bay was nothing like you see today... it was nothing more than a mud flap, starting from east Mission Bay drive and sloping down to the water. It was a marsh filled with all sorts of creepy crawlies and every spring tomatoes would grow. At the time the whole area was being dredged and sculpted and my architect had a great idea. He went down to the city manger’s office and said, “Tell your contractor (who was dredging Mission Bay) that if he’ll place the dredge according to my specification he won’t have to hall it away.” He agreed and now there are 75,000 cubic yards of fill right here that build this area up above the rest of the bay. I could have never afforded that, but the way it turned out I got it for free... and everybody was happy.
—— Since this concept was still new, how did anyone know you were there?
I’ll tell you. So now it’s being built and I need some signage. Just one problem... there are no more billboards--and there aren’t going to be any more billboards! Just about this time a well known actor was elected governor of CA, Ronald Regan, and he selects Gordon Luce, who I had worked with as Home Feds advertising manager, to become Secretary of Business and Transportation, under whom falls Caltrans. So one day I flew up to Sacramento and Gordon and I went out for dinner. At dinner I told him about my plan and that what I needed were official highway signs. So he said, “I’ll tell you what... you meet me in my office tomorrow morning and we’ll go down and see Jim Hall, who heads up Caltrans.”I did and we did, and when I got through with my presentation Gordon turned to Jim and said, “Do we have enough political muscle to get Ted his signs?” and Jim said, “If you say so sir we do.” We’ve got two signs north and one sign south... so if you drive down I-5 you will see official highway signage that says “Visitor Information Center 2.5 miles”, and “Visitor Information next right”.
—— When did you finally open up for business?
We officially opened the doors on July 15, 1969 and they were still building the iron stairway. That was the one error construction because the kids would run up and down the stairs and take their soft drinks and see if they could pour them down and hit the people working behind the counter. The other problem there was that the observation tower faces toward I-5, instead of facing west, overlooking Mission Bay Park.
It got off to a pretty interesting start. I had some of my friends who told me I had a screw loose ... told me I was certifiably insane ... and all of them ended up being my clients (smiling). We had Seaworld, the Wild Animal Park, and the Zoo, which had a reptile display--with live reptiles! The only problem was that they had to come down from the zoo every couple of days maintain it. Then, in November of 1969 Sunset magazine did an article on us, which was a big shot in the arm for us. Back then if you were talking about California, you were talking about Sunset magazine and they did a real nice article on us. That first year we had approximately 120,000 people come through the doors and it has grown over the years to over a million people annually, which makes us one of the top 15 attractions in all of San Diego Over the years we’ve had a wide variety of people come through here, even the Beach boys came when they were in town.
—— How have things changed for you and your customers over the years?
Well we’ve grown, but we haven’t changed all that much. We still greet the person when they walk in the door, we still get on the phone and confirm a reservation for them and we’ve been fortunate enough to have had some great people put in many years here. My daughter Claire runs all of this now. She consults with me on all the major issues and hopefully doesn’t consult with me on the minor ones. Back during the sixties it was a lot more fun, eye contact and a handshake were good enough. You could look somebody in the eye and say, “You’ve got a deal.” and you had a deal. Now you’ve always got to read the fine print and bring your attorney.
—— When did you decide that this was going to be your full-time business?
In 1973, through no fault of my own I was told that I was being promoted and moved back to the Los Angles office. Now mind you I hadn’t done anything to deserve having my parole in San Diego revoked, so I told them I wanted to talk it over with my wife first. My wife said she would prefer not to move and I agreed, so the advertising company and I parted ways. From that time forward the San Diego Visitor Information Center was my main means of support, we either had hamburger or beans, depending on whether or not I was doing a good job. I also had four kids to provide for...the best labor you could possibly have. At one time or another, they all worked in the snack bar. Back in the seventies if you came down here and you decided that you were going to spend a Saturday or Sunday on Mission Bay you didn’t want leave, because there was no way you were going to find another parking spot. So if you wanted something to eat, you were going to stay right here and our snack bar did very well. The Assistant City Manager once said we had the best hamburgers on Mission Bay, though I’m not sure anyone else served hamburgers! We still serve snacks, but the full service snack bar disappeared around the time of the “super value menus”.
—— I guess you’ve had to change with the times. Are there other things you’ve tried here at the San Diego Visitor’s Information Center?
Well now that you mention it... at one time I had an insurance license and we sold Mexican automobile insurance. As a matter of fact, things seemed to be going rather well and so from there I thought, “Why not open a currency exchange swapping dollars for pesos?” So I did, and things were working out just fine and dandy until one morning in the front page of the newspaper I read that Mexico had devalued the peso! And I had a lot of pesos! Overnight the money I held was worth one-tenth as much and because of that Mexican insurance companies could not afford to repair the American vehicle that had been damaged. Luckily we didn’t have any outstanding claims, so I closed the doors on that just as fast as I could and high-tailed it down to Tijuana to exchange all of my pesos. Another of our little fiascos took place right down there, where you see those two parking spaces... (shaking his head) that was our bicycle and moped operation. We stored them at our house, my son was the mechanic and so my kids and their friends got to ride them all over Mt. Soledad... we lost our shirt on that one too (laughing)!
We are restricted in signage and the city was bound and determined that we were not going to turn this into a restaurant. Other than that we can do just about anything else we want, all we have to do is ask, fill out the forms and negotiate the rate that you pay. Some times the best thing that could’ve ever happened to us was for the city to have said no to us, but they didn’t!
(12-16-2003 issue, Interviewd by Terry Nicholas)