Joe Cacciola in front of Sea Center
One person close to the Helgren’s sportsfishing saga describes the struggle over city property at the Oceanside Harbor as an ongoing “soap opera,” filled with “hate and discontent.”
And while the major players won’t speak out publicly against the other parties, there remains plenty of bad blood and accusations of unfulfilled promises when a competing businessman took control of a 40-year old building built by the late sportsfishing entrepreneur Dick Helgren.
Cacciola says that other saltwater species will be added in three or four weeks.
Helgren built the two-story A-frame building in the late 70s to house his Helgren’s Sportsfishing business. His son Joey ran the business after Dick passed away in 2008 at age 75. In 2016 the younger Helgren sensed that the city was fishing for a new tenant to occupy the house his father built. The city sent out a request for proposal for a new sportfishing business at 315 Harbor Drive South.
Even though the elder Helgren built the building, the city of Oceanside had a legal right to assume ownership and reassign its lease when the Hellgren family lease was up. The 2400-square-foot two-story building and several prime boat slips were awarded to a different longtime Oceanside Harbor local, Joe Cacciola, owner/operator of Sea Star Charters. He renamed the building Oceanside Sea Center.
Helgren's Sportfishing was allowed to move to a smaller space (350 square feet) in the Coast Guard Auxiliary building. Both Helgren’s four-vessel fleet and Cacciola’s five-vessel fleet now take fishermen out daily to catch yellowtail and bluefin tuna, but with fewer passengers aboard due to Covid-19. One person close to the Helgren’s operation says current business is not highly profitable because of the pandemic occupancy restrictions, but that the business is not losing money either.
But what did Joe Cacciola promise to the city of Oceanside to wrest the A-frame away from the Helgren family? And has he delivered on those promises?
A technician continues to work on rewiring Southern Cal's faulty electronic grid.
“When the Sea Center proposal came before us, Joe was pushing so hard for the aquarium,” says Carolyn Krammer, a member of the Harbor and Beaches Advisory Committee. “He was saying the Sea Center was going to be this big education and information center with this great aquarium. I was wondering how you could have a big aquarium in such a small building like that.”
In promoting the value of the aquarium, Cacciola said four years ago: “Not all visitors want to go sportsfishing. We hope to serve other people’s needs.”
But one longtime harbor local pooh-poohed the Sea Center’s in-house aquarium: “I heard it was a little household aquarium with a starfish.”
A visit to the Sea Center showed a 15-foot long, unlit sparse aquarium with a shovel nose shark, two different starfish, and two other species hiding out of sight. Krammer says the Sea Center’s aquarium specifics were not spelled out in a contract, but that its educational value was “…definitely used as a selling point.”
Cacciola says the aquarium, located on the first floor of the Sea Center along with fishing supplies and gift store items for sale, is a work in progress. He says that other saltwater species will be added in three or four weeks. He said aquarium lights will eventually be installed.
When Cacciola promoted his Sea Center master plan to the city in 2016, he said it would house the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (P.I.E.R.) which does occupy the upstairs, second story of the Sea Center.
A promotional video says that the Pfleger institute oversees studies on sea bass movements, and does research to find a better, “less destructive” way to catch swordfish. “We hope to continue this work and expand the educational component.” The spokesman in the video explains that education will be, “…the cornerstone of the [Oceanside] Sea Center,” and that Pfleger will offer floating classrooms and seminars.
However, a call to Pfleger’s Sea Center office was not returned. No one was in the office when I stopped by even though the P.I.E.R. website lists six employees.
Longtime Oceanside locals will remember when the Pfleger Institute was connected with a controversial plan to build a much larger aquarium in 1998. That plan got the support of the Oceanside City Council but was met with a wave of negative public reaction.
“They wanted to pave over sandy beach at the North Jetty harbor beach for this aquarium,” says Shari Mackin who along with Krammer successfully fought against Pfleger’s proposed aquarium 22 years ago. “We have a beautiful sandy beach. Can you imagine the council said we had too much sand?”
That Pfleger aquarium proposal died when the California Coastal Commission, which happened to be meeting in Oceanside at the time, denied the proposal. Cacciola, who promoted Pfleger’s 1998 aquarium plan, says it was derailed when, “…the surfing crowd, Surfrider, and very local people,” rebelled against it. He says the manmade North and South Jetties actually increased the harbor beach to three- or four-times its original, natural size.
One Sea Center detractor who opted to not be named says Cacciola made another promise four years ago that was not delivered. “He got in front of the city council and said he was bringing down this beautiful 75-foot boat to be part of his new fleet. He did bring it down. It’s called the Southern Cal and it’s been sitting there for three years. It never went anywhere.”
Cacciola admits that his Southern Cal sportsfisher craft has not left its dock since it was brought down to the Oceanside harbor. But he says a technician continues to work on rewiring its faulty electronic grid.
Still, he explains he has greatly upgraded the old Helgren’s A-frame building. “There was no working water or sewer service before we took it over. They had stopped up the sewer pipes with rags. There was a terrible smell.”
Ted Schiafone, Oceanside’s Harbor Division manager, says Cacciola has made “major improvements” to the Helgren’s building, “…above and beyond what was required in the lease…In my opinion the Sea Center has been an excellent addition to the harbor and our visitors. I’ve not had one complaint about their operation or level of service.”