Morro Bay celebrates 50 years of cityhood

Beachgoers enjoy the Labor Day weekend weather in Morro Bay on Sept. 2, 1960.
Beachgoers enjoy the Labor Day weekend weather in Morro Bay on Sept. 2, 1960. Tribune file photo

Bolstered by the new economic base of a revenue-generating power plant and with ambitions to improve local services, Morro Bay officially became a city on July 17, 1964.

Incorporation was achieved with 1,505 voters in favor and 747 opposed in an election held 10 days before cityhood papers were filed on that day in June, 50 years ago.

Since then, Morro Bay’s population has grown from about 3,700 to more than 10,000.

Much has changed culturally and economically, perhaps most notably the closure of the power plant earlier this year. Yet the appeal of a small, friendly beachside community with an array of outdoor adventures remains.

“The reason to celebrate the birthday of Morro Bay is because of the rich history it has,” said native Cathy (Costa) Ryan, who graduated from Morro Bay High School in 1967. “We want to let people know this spot is the gem of the California coast. We need to celebrate what it offered us and still will be offering.”

On its half-century birthday Thursday, a citywide Founders’ Day Community Picnic will be held in Morro Bay Park at the intersection of Morro Bay Boulevard and Harbor Street.

The picnic is one of several events organized this year to celebrate the city’s birthday.

Another is the Dahlia Daze flower show and parade set for Sept. 5-6. The dahlia is the city’s official flower.

Over the past five decades, some industries that helped define Morro Bay’s identity have died away or now are a shell of their former selves.

The old power plant that helped grow the city’s economy and population shut down in February.

The fishing industry has experienced a massive drop-off in local yields over the past 20 years.

And agricultural farms that once helped characterize the community have dwindled, though avocados and other crops are still grown off Highway 41 at the north end of the city.

Yet with those changes came a boom in tourism, and with it a swell in hotels and motels as well as gift shops and restaurants that cater to summer travelers seeking a coastal refuge.

Services also have improved with the shift from county governance to city control. Law enforcement agencies respond more quickly and roads are paved.

“Look at the difference in streets between Los Osos and Morro Bay,” said Gary Ream, a former Morro Bay planning commissioner and author of history books on the city. “The county doesn’t take very good care of roads. We may squawk about our road conditions, but we may still be driving on some dirt roads if it weren’t for cityhood.”

Longtime residents say gone are the days of clamming or multiple commercial salmon runs per day, or being able to “catch an abalone in the early morning with low tide,” Morro Bay native Roger Castle, 69, said of his early years.

“Some of the things you used to do, you can’t do anymore,” Castle said.

But much of Morro Bay’s quaint beachside culture has remained — familiarity with one’s neighbors, safe neighborhoods, abundant recreation, high school sports and community gatherings.

Recalling her youth, Ryan remembers the beach parties, athletics and caring teachers and community members.

“The happiest years were high school years,” Ryan said.

Resident Linda Estes, who arrived in 1960, recalls a town where you didn’t have to leave to buy shoes or clothes. Dress shops and department stores offered sufficient selections.

Incorporation brought chain grocery and drug stores, but the community character of downtown Morro Bay remained, said Estes, who’s now the president of the Historical Society of Morro Bay.

Speaking to services before cityhood, Estes remembered a small fire on a hill that a volunteer fire department and local residents put out.

“A county person came out two days later to check on things,” Estes said. “We felt safer when we had more amenities as a city. But that didn’t happen overnight. It took planning and coordination.”

With the construction of the power plant in the 1950s, an economic base was in place for Morro Bay to function as a financially viable city government.

“Aside from Morro Rock itself, the PG&E generating plant is the biggest thing in Morro Bay and its influence is much greater than the rock,” Telegram-Tribune regional editor Charles Judson wrote in a 1964 article. “While it clutters up the landscape, it represents a cherished island of high tax assessment and is the main reason why Morro Bay can entertain the idea of incorporation.”

The city lost $800,000 per year in power plant revenues when the current owner, Dynegy, closed the facility this year — a financial impact officials say they planned for. The city is now looking to grow sales and hotel taxes as well as draw new industry to help increase revenue for Morro Bay.

City Council members met with officials from Dynegy in February to learn more about the possibility of a wave energy operation that the company is considering now that its power plant is shuttered. If eventually constructed, the wave park would create an estimated $1 million per year in tax revenues for the city.

Also, the city is exploring the financial feasibility of a boat haul-out facility that could generate new revenues.

“One big benefit to Morro Bay’s incorporation as a city is that residents and their elected officials have much more local control over how the city is defined, developed and managed day to day,” said Mayor Pro Tem Christine Johnson.

Councilwoman Nancy Johnson said community members rave about police and fire services. She added that infrastructure projects such as road repaving have been difficult to manage at times because of lack of funding.

Council members also have wrestled with how best to keep costs down in the construction of a sewer treatment plant in the planning stages.

Johnson has helped coordinate the Dahlia Daze flower show that celebrates a Morro Bay tradition started 50 years ago.

The event, with flower displays and exhibits, attracted 12,000 people from around the country in 1967.

The celebrations of the city flower disappeared in 1980s as a local garden club faded. But residents brought it back four years ago and the enthusiasm for the event has renewed.

“It grew into a huge event in the 1960s,” Johnson said. “Now, it’s much smaller of course. But along with the city, it started 50 years ago, and we wanted to commemorate it.”