It Began on a Bay

It Began on a Bay

A brief history of Evans Hotels and one family’s belief in the potential of tourism in San Diego

San Diego, California (January 2003) – Today Mission Bay seems such a fixture of San Diego’s picture-postcard landscape of waving palm trees, colorful sails in a spanking breeze, and white sand beaches that few can imagine or remember the scene in the late 1940s.

Located at the mouth of the San Diego River, the undeveloped bay was then a fetid, forgotten tidal maze. City planning director Glenn Rick had a bold plan to turn the area into the nation’s largest “aquatic park,” but the effort required both the backing of San Diegans (through bond measures) and private-enterprise lease-holders. After World War II, it had become clear to city leaders that the region was in for rocky economic times. Some felt that the city’s legacy of attracting visitors since the late 1800s might prove to be one of the only real hopes for new economic development to keep the city on its feet.

William and Anne Evans, recently married, journeyed out to the mudflats to survey the possibilities. The city was offering several parcels up to bid, in hopes that various hotel, marina, theme park, and concession operators would jump at the opportunity to be the first to build on a new Mission Bay of sylvan parks, curvilinear islands, sandy beaches, sailboat coves, and a wonderful network of bike paths. From the air, the new bay after dredging and shaping would look like a puzzle of interlocking shores and waterways. From the city budget-makers’ standpoint, it was proving to be just as puzzling: who would step forward and take the risk?

“Bill’s vision was something I didn’t understand at first,” says Anne, looking back today. “The bay at the time smelled funny. He drove us past the place where the Bahia is now and said, ‘I’m going to build a hotel there!’ I thought he was some kind of extremist.”

She recalls that it didn’t look at all promising. “The dredging hadn’t started, the bond issues hadn’t been passed, and there were no private developments there.” The couple still managed to raise a small loan and garner the first commercial lease on Mission Bay. They later found out that they had been the only bidders.

By 1953, the Bahia’s first 52 units were open and attracting visitors. In two years the Evans’s opened another 20, later followed by an additional 40. “It was incremental,” recalls Anne. “We were greatly in debt, but we grew like wildflowers. We never had the huge amount of financing you need to bring in the masterplan and skip loaders and make it happen.”

In the midst of the Bahia’s gradual growth (helped by the hotel’s tremendous popularity with travelers), the couple built the Catamaran, a Polynesian-themed hotel on a privately owned, lease-hold corner of the bay. They also became the operators of historic Belmont Park for several years, home of a famous wooden roller coaster that still thrills riders today.

Looking back today, Anne recalls how some called the early Mission Bay leaseholders (a group that included Sea World) “visionaries”. “Yet today there are individuals in the city who see us as pirates,” she says, as the city considers new issues such as expansion and improvements on its bayfront properties. “I think the word pioneer is better.”

After the death of William D. Evans in 1984, Anne Evans became chairman of the company and guided Evans Hotels through a period of remarkable growth over the past two decades. Both the Catamaran and Bahia saw extensive improvements, while a new hotel – The Lodge At Torrey Pines – was built on city-leased land adjacent to the famous golf course and nearby State Reserve. The Lodge has already been awarded a Five Diamond ranking in its first year of operation, and is the toast of architecture buffs who laud its faithful recreation of Craftsman-era styling that echoes that of Greene and Greene’s Gamble and Blacker houses in Pasadena.

Ever the pioneer, Evans Hotels considers its role in the economy of San Diego to be an important part of the region’s future.

“Our Mission Bay hotels alone employ almost 1,000,” says Anne Evans. “We’re proud to provide that ongoing employment base. Throughout the recent depressed economy San Diego’s transit occupancy tax revenues have continued to grow while all other revenues atrophied. We’re proud to be a part of that.”

Today much of the city’s success in the tourism industry can be traced back to that mudflat in Mission Bay where two young hoteliers saw the future. Now joined by her adult children in the family ventures, Anne Evans continues to be the driving force behind one of Southern California’s true success stories in tourism entrepreneurship and its hopes for continued success in the future.