Return of Sandcastles Explored to Make San Diego Nation’s ‘Sandcastle Capitol’

IMG_2934 69102e348cf524df0151a0bb305c315cPublished March 9, 2013 by Imperial Beach Patch.

Following the demise of the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition, there are no more sandcastles in Imperial Beach, a city that is perhaps best known for sandcastles. 

The hope of starting a new competition brought organizers and more than 60 people interested in becoming volunteers together Thursday evening at City Hall.

Kent Trollen, part of a group trying to bring back the competition, said he wants Imperial Beach to be part of an effort to make San Diego a sandcastle capitol.

“I think part of Gordon and my plan is to make San Diego one of the sandcastle capitols of the United States,” he said.

Gordon Summer and Trollen worked together with sandcastle teams like Archisand and IB’s Sand Squirrels and I.B. Posse to put on a new sandcastle competition late last summer on the B Street Pier in downtown San Diego.

To avoid overlap between a new IB event and the competition in downtown San Diego, the IB event will take place at the end of September or in early October, a month earlier than San Diego’s.

Ultimately, the Port and organizers want to see the event return in a way that allows a group of volunteers to support the long-term sustainability of a competition.

If the event goes forward, some aspects of the one-day event to be held after Labor Day include:
• Act as a Port of San Diego 50th anniversary celebration.
• Possible admission charge.
• An area to teach people how to sculpt sand.
• Include a competition like the Kids N’ Kastles Competition.
• Seek to attract 10,000 people or more.
• Hold an event in Pier Plaza.
•  May include some forms of family entertainment and an art show.
• Include limited amount of vendors to sell drinks, sundries and merchandise.

The meeting started with a presentation by Jim Hutzelman with the Port of San Diego and quickly moved to questions from potential volunteers about charging admission, the size of the event and other important elements to make sandcastle dreams a reality.

Though some framework was provided by the Port of San Diego, all aspects of the event are subject to change depending on what can be marshaled from volunteers and sponsors, Hutzelman said.

“This is still very much a work in progress,” he said.

Hutzelman said he was “overwhelmed” by the turnout Thursday. He will collect volunteer sign-up forms over the next week or two, then he and organizers will decide what to do next.

Block the Beach and Charge Admission?

In order for a new sandcastle competition to get off the ground, Hutzelman and organizers estimate that $80,000 to $100,000 needs to be raised.

The previous event had a budget in excess of $220,000, Summer said.

At this time, funding from the Port has been devoted to sheriff’s and City of IB public safety costs, Trollen said, so the new event is essentially starting from scratch.

The U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition was able to stay free for 31 years because of fundraising and sponsorship, but especially with talk of removing vendors from the street that provided much of the funding in the past, something has to give, Summer said.

“We are not suggesting that we gate this event and charge 100 bucks a ticket. We are suggesting we gate the event and charge, I don’t know, $3 a ticket, not to residents of IB. Residents of IB will get in for free,” he said. “But for all the people coming in from out of town, there’s a cost to this event and we need to make this things self-sustaining. The only way to do that is to charge money.”

Several suggestions were made by people at the meeting for ways to monetize the event.

Jaimy Wilkinson, owner of IB Yoga, suggests donation boxes be placed on Seacoast Drive street corners.

“The energy, the volunteering, the good vibes should be the focus and let’s ask people to donate,” she said.

Ticket booths placed on main thoroughfares like Palm Avenue and Imperial Beach Boulevard would make plenty of money, said former U.S. Open Sandcastle Committee volunteer Angelo Pallotto.

“Even if only 50 percent of the people attend the event shell out and don’t sliver down an alley, you do the math,” he said. “Your intentions might be to make it smaller, condensed and what not, but you say Imperial beach, you say sandcastles, you’re going to get minimum 100,000 people on that day, without a doubt.”

This approach could mean the event could still be had in the summer instead of after Labor Day, Pallotto said.

Summer said this approach could be considered next year, but “doing all the legwork that’s needed by July, it’s going to be total murder.”

Donation or mandatory admission fee, the treatment should be the same for all people who attend, said Mike Osborne with the Imperial Beach Business Improvement District.

“If someone’s getting charged a ticket and they’re walking around and find out their neighbor wasn’t charged, there’s going to be some really upset people that never come back,” he said.

One man said if, as Pallotto suggested, 100,000 people come to the competition, and each was charged $5, money made could ensure the competition’s future.

“That’s $500,000,” he said. “You could afford to hire a small office staff to do some of this stuff. God knows there’s enough unemployed people walking around Imperial Beach who would take those jobs.”

The Port funded the old sandcastle competition for more than two decades, but pulled its financial support because the all-volunteer U.S. Open Sandcastle Committee did not bring in a professional organizer or manager.

Hutzelman told IB Patch the Port decided to continue funding a competition again because they recognized the demand.

“We started hearing just how much people love the sandcastles and just how much people recognize IB as part of the IB brand,” he said. Community involvement will decide whether a new competition can be built to last, he said.

“It really takes a village,” Hutzelman said.

A summer celebration of some kind is a tradition in Imperial Beach. Starting with the Sun & Sea Festival and continuing with the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition, IB has had some kind of large summer event for more than half a century.

Last month the Port agreed to put $40,000 into a new event to attract a professional organizer. Julia Simms, whose PR agency had led talks last year to bring back a sandcastle competition, declined to submit a proposal.

Summer helped raise funds for the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition and Trollen has helped organize dozens of sandcastle competitions in Southern California.


Audra White remembers when sandcastle vendors were local artists and others who sold things that represented Imperial Beach. She doesn’t like the direction the 100-plus vendors took at the old sandcastle competition

“The last couple of years it’s like a swap meet on the water. It had nothing to do with IB. It’s a bunch of vendors from L.A. or Southern California who imported things from China to sell,” she said.

Efforts should be made to ensure vendors who take part in the competition are local and sell things that represent Imperial Beach in order to make sure the money that is generated stays in the community, White said. Businesses throughout IB, not just on the waterfront, can be invited to participate.

Others at the meeting questioned why efforts are being made to minimize the number of vendors at the new sandcastle event.

Money collected from vendors provided more than one-third of the funding for the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition, Summer said.

Hutzelman said reducing the number of vendors may bring customers to local businesses, keep the new event more family friendly and reduce security costs.

“One of the things we heard from the city and Sheriff’s Department is that the big long row of booths on Seacoast was one of the sources for some of the real problems. The portion of the event that was actually out on the sand, people were much better behaved and there was more of a kind of a street fair mentality where it was more edgier type of behavior,” he said.

Security Costs 

Trollen and Summer wanted to hold a sandcastle competition in IB last year instead of downtown San Diego.

“We actually wanted to do the event here but we were dissuaded from it,” he said. The city didn’t want the event, businesses away from the waterfront weren’t interested and high sheriff security costs were a big challenge.

Law enforcement costs at the B Street Pier last year were $5,000, Summer said.

“The cost here was projected in 2012 at $100,000 so it’s a huge, huge difference,” he said. The Sheriff’s Department told organizers potential gang activity and large crowd control played a big role in why security costs continued to rise, Summer said.

Robin Clegg, head of a Seacoast Drive homeowners association, asked why rates from private security or other law enforcement agencies aren’t sought.
Another person asked why the Harbor Police could not handle security.

The San Diego Harbor Police couldn’t handle an event of this size and private security may require barriers to restrict people’s movement and other forms of hard crowd control, Hutzelman said.

“At least they would try to be competitive probably if we went out and bid for contracts,” Clegg said.

The last meeting with the Sheriff’s Department and city a few weeks ago gave organizers hope that sheriff security costs will not stand in the way of a new sandcastle competition.

“He (Lt. Marco Garmo) was very community-minded, and he said the cost could be, pending a number of things that can be done here, the costs could come way, way, way down. And were encouraged by that,” Summer said.

Volunteers Wanted

When he looked around the room Thursday evening, Angelo Pallotto said he saw four members of the former U.S. Open Sandcastle Committee.

Being a volunteer for the former committee was like a full-time job, Pallotto said. Most people, even close friends in IB, assumed the city put on the competition, not a group of volunteers.

“People who got jobs just you and me and everybody worked year round starting the day after the event planning the next year’s event,” he said.

“I told these gentlemen I’ll be willing to let them pick my brain, but I’m not willing to darn near get a divorce over it like we did for many years because it became like a second job,” he jokingly told the group. “It was time consuming. It was really a whole lot. So everybody needs to understand that if you want to volunteer, the more volunteers the better.”

Organizers of the new competition are looking for people to help with contest management, parking management, information staff, event set up and sponsor care. People with skills in graphics and web development and other talents are also sought.

Groups like churches, schools, sports teams and other organized groups are also sought to play a role. Ideas for how to put together the event are also being accepted.

If you are interested in volunteering but were unable to attend the meeting contact Jim Hutzelman for a volunteer sign up sheet.

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