LONG BEACH - Amid political feuding and efforts to keep the Port of Long Beach headquarters close to downtown, officials voted Monday to relocate its staff to a building near the Long Beach Airport.
The Board of Harbor Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of a plan to move its roughly 350 employees to 4801 Airport Plaza Drive, a building formerly used by the Boeing Co. C-17 program.
Harbor Commissioner Thomas Fields was the lone dissenter, calling a move to the airport "disruptive."
Commissioners rejected a plan to relocate to the World Trade Center, a downtown building that the port failed to buy in 2011 because it lacked a majority commissioners vote to close the deal.
Several community and business officials disagreed with Monday's decision, noting the tension between Mayor Bob Foster and port officials over the financial operations of the nation's second busiest port.
Foster vetoed a plan to construct a multimillion port headquarters in 2010, and criticized the Harbor Commission's handling of the World Trade Center deal downtown.
Moving near the airport "makes little operational or logistical sense, (but) it looks like this makes City Hall happy," said Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "City Hall has become much more aggressive in its meddling into port business and the amount of port dollars that are being subverted to the city are unprecedented."
The City Council will have to review the $14.25 million proposal since the city would have to amend its budget to make the purchase. If approved, the deal would likely close on Dec. 27 and port staff would move in about six months later, port Executive Director Christopher Lytle said Friday.
The port would have to spend about $9 million to renovate the new facility.
The current 53-year-old building that houses the port headquarters can barely accommodate port staff and has issues such as earthquake retrofitting requirements, asbestos and lead-based paint that are costly to fix, port officials said.
Despite Monday's decision, port officials still hope to construct a new, permanent building somewhere in or near downtown.
Before voting, board commissioners spoke of the struggle in making the decision, which in the last few years has been complicated by politics.
Commissioner Nick Sramek said of the World Trade Center location: "We would have been here already if it was up to me. But that was not going to happen. Circumstances made it impossible to purchase the World Trade Center. - We were told in no uncertain terms that we were going to be in a big political battle to try to purchase the World Trade Center at the price they wanted for it, that it was way overpriced. I don't fully agree with that but it wasn't up to me."
Initially, port officials wanted to spend $220 million for a new headquarters near its current location. But Foster vetoed the plan, calling it a "Taj Mahal" and a waste of money.
The port then launched talks with owners of the World Trade Center, and were in escrow with the building's owners. But city attorneys asked Harbor Commission President Susan E. Anderson Wise to recuse herself from voting on the deal because she is a subtenant in the 575,000-square-foot building. The deal died because it lacked a majority vote.
Also complicating matters was infighting among commissioners, including allegations of misconduct leaked to the media in a letter. Harbor Commissioner Doug Drummond allegedly accused Fields and Sramek of unethical behavior regarding the World Trade Center deal during a closed session.
Though he still favored the World Trade Center plan, Sramek on Monday said he "had to compromise. You may or may not appreciate what I'm doing but this decision had to be made."
Fields, however, continued to support the move to the World Trade Center, saying that moving to the airport would harm and be an inconvenience to stakeholders.
"We're talking about the economic vitality of a downtown, which is the center of commerce in our city," he said. "I know that if you move - employees out of that area and you move them to a suburban area - it doesn't make sense. And if you're talking about a temporary move, fine. But a temporary move to the airport is disruptive."
Commissioner Rich Dines said the board's first priority is the staff, adding that a new permanent building may bring 1,500 to 2,000 construction jobs and change the city's downtown skyline.
"This issue has weighed heavily on us," he said. "I believe a new building can bring economic activity to downtown. It will support downtown. There's no desire to abandon downtown."