Trademark battle delays reopening of Malibu Pier

The state is applying for trademark rights to the pier, which an Agoura man says he owns. Meanwhile, recent large waves cause further damage to pier pilings.

By Heidi Manteuffel/Special to The Malibu Times

The tri-phase Malibu Pier project expected to reach completion earlier this year is pushed back once again with a finishing date eight months from now. While 75 percent of the pier is currently open with Phase 3 completed, the newest setbacks come from a recent finding of 15 unstable pilings localized at the ocean end of the pier, and the battle between the state of California and an Agoura resident concerning the trademark rights for Malibu pier.

The state has applied for trademark rights to the pier while Agoura resident Stephen Harper contests the intellectual property of Malibu Pier should remain his. Harper’s interest in marketing the pier began six years ago and said his ownership to the image of the pier was finalized only last year. Harper had no previous affiliation with the pier or Malibu. He has obtained the domain name,, and said he plans to sell pier merchandise online.

Jefferson Wagner of Malibu Pier Partners, LLC, which has been selected to operate the pier’s concessions, calls Harper a “poacher” and said he is basically someone who saw an opportunity and went for it. The pier itself was taken over by the state in 1980 and will remain state-owned with the new reopening. Hayden Sohm, acting Malibu sector superintendent for California State Parks said, “We’re in the filing process, and through our attorneys, working to prove we have control over the intellectual property of the Malibu Pier.”

Harper is the president of Division Brands and is involved with corporate branding. As president and founder of the Malibu Pier Company, LLC, he said he plans to bring his company to the same level as Tommy Bahama—a company that markets casual yet expensive lines of men and women’s clothing, as well as home furnishings and other products. With the image of the pier, Harper plans to make T-shirts, hats and umbrellas, which fall under a category that he describes as Class 25 (giving him the sole right to make apparel and wearable items with the image of the pier). Harper said State Parks is applying for a trademark in different areas of branding, but that his Class 25 supersedes it. He said the state is also filing for Class 25, but subsequent to his filing.

“I don’t understand why the state, the Malibu Pier Partners and I can’t work together,” Harper said. “I’m willing to share the pier—it’s a worldwide icon.”

Aside from the trademark issue, delay of the reopening of the pier is attributed to two pilings in a strategic position that were lost as a result of large surf four weeks ago. Further investigation from the state discovered 15 pilings that need to be replaced. The pilings are localized beneath the bait and snack shops where the lifeguards are stationed, and will have to be driven through the deck and possibly one to two of the pier’s buildings. Restorations must be completed before full reopening of the pier can occur.

While Malibu Pier Partners has signed short-term, interim agreement to run the pier, the 20-year deal to operate the Malibu Pier has not yet been finalized. The state has completed the contract and sent it to Malibu Pier Partners. Malibu Pier Partners has 30 days to sign the agreement. The contract should be signed within the next week or so, said Jeff Bonhach, director of development for Malibu Pier Partners.

Bonhach said Malibu Pier Partners consist of Operations Manager Jefferson Wagner and CEO of Operations Alexander Leff, Victor Scher, a business partner of Leff’s, and chef Bradley Ogden of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group. Wagner, the owner of Zuma Jay’s Surfboards, said there will be a beach rental operation on the pier as well as more tourist-focused sales with Malibu Pier T-shirts and other pier-related souvenirs. Leff, an attorney in San Francisco, is in charge of finding operators to take on various aspects of the pier.

While not all operators are currently in place, Sohm said the pier will have a nicer “destination restaurant,” as well as a smaller café with a less expensive menu. There will also be a sport-fishing operation with bait and tackle shop, and a surfing museum whose theme will include surfing in Malibu. An outdoor café, Mo’s, is already open, during weekends only.

The total cost for construction of the pier, Sohm said, was $6.2 million dollars, with $3.6 million coming from Proposition A funds; $700,000 of that was allocated to the city of Malibu, which then allocated it to state parks for the pier, and $2.9 million was received from the county. The Coastal Conservancy put in $200,000, and the rest, Sohm said, came directly from the state.

The new repair work is not accounted for in the $6.2 million, but additional Prop A money is being allocated to fund the work.

The pier has been under construction since 1999, but as of October of last year, 75 percent of the pier has been open to the public. The pier is open for people to fish, walk around and even smoke, as Sohm said the state has decided not to honor the new ordinance issued by the city of Malibu at this time. However, there remains no access to the end of the pier, which contains the restaurant formerly known as Alice’s and various other shops.

No hard day of the pier’s reopening has been set at this date, as repairs and trademark issues remain in negotiation.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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