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Mid year, San Diego’s hospitality industry has seen several power plays

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SeaWorld celebrated its 50th anniversary in March. The attraction has been under fire since the release of the critical documentary "Blackfish." Photo courtesy of SeaWorld

There have been major shifts in San Diego’s hospitality industry in the first half of 2014, with new ownership stakes in where to dine, vacation and celebrate. Controversy over one of the city’s biggest visitor attractions and plans for the Balboa Park centennial also dominated headlines.

Enlightened Hospitality sells majority stake

In January, global firm Hakkasan Ltd. announced that it acquired the downtown nightclub Stingaree and a controlling stake in Enlightened Hospitality Group for an undisclosed sum. The deal means Hakkasan is the majority stakeholder in all of Enlightened Hospitality’s properties, including Searsucker in San Diego, Del Mar, and Austin, Texas; and Herringbone in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Enlightened Hospitality is the brainchild of CEO James Brennan and celebrity chef Brian Malarkey. The January announcement came just days after the company closed two under performing restaurants, Gabardine in Point Loma and a Searsucker in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Juniper & Ivy opens

Juniper & Ivy opened in Little Italy on March 3 to high praise from patrons and food critics. It’s the newest restaurant project by chef Richard Blais, who earned acclaim as the winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars.” The restaurant was renovated from an old warehouse by Atlanta-based architectural firm The Johnson Studio. Design features include an open kitchen, exposed-beam ceilings, leather booth seating and outdoor patio space.

City honors SeaWorld despite backlash

SeaWorld celebrated its 50-year anniversary in March with an official “SeaWorld San Diego Month” designation from Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the San Diego City Council. The proclamation came despite backlash from the critical 2013 documentary “Blackfish” and proposed legislation from state Assemblyman Richard Bloom that would make it unlawful to breed orcas in captivity or use them in theme park shows. The “Blackfish bill” was tabled by state legislators in April until more research could be done.

As part of the “SeaWorld San Diego Month” ceremony, city dignitaries emphasized that SeaWorld draws some 4 million visitors to San Diego annually, pays the city $14 million in rent each year, and employs up to 4,500 workers, making it one of San Diego’s largest employers.

Chef Richard Blais' Juniper & Ivy was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings earlier this year. Courtesy image

Hotel del Coronado under new ownership

Chicago-based real estate investment trust Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc. (NYSE: BEE) announced in mid-June that it had acquired the remaining 63.6 percent ownership interest in the Hotel del Coronado from The Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX) for $210 million.

The deal valued the historic hotel at $787 million and included the assumption of $475 million in mortgage financing.

Balboa Park centennial celebration scaled back

The centennial celebration for Balboa Park will still be held, but at a far less grand scale than originally proposed.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, along with City Council President Todd Gloria and civic and business dignitaries, announced in March the celebration would be “about getting San Diegans to fall in love with Balboa Park all over again” while making long-last park improvements. The event is intended to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park.

Together with the City of San Diego, The Balboa Park Conservancy co-hosts Balboa Park December Nights which will serve as the opening and closing of the City's 2015 Centennial Celebration.

The city dissolved its agreement with Balboa Park Celebration Inc. to plan the event. The company had proposed an array of multimillion-dollar “spectaculars,” such as a water and light show over San Diego Bay and a televised concert at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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-By Jennifer McEntee. McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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