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San Diego City Council approves lawsuit against SeaWorld for back rent

The San Diego City Council says SeaWorld owes $12 million to the city — and it's authorized a lawsuit to collect the money from the Florida-based corporation.

The amount includes back rent and fees that were not paid during the pandemic, along with interest. City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said San Diego is done playing nice.

"I think that they're quite frankly just giving a giant middle finger to the City of San Diego and to all of its residents," Elo-Rivera said, a day after the council authorized the suit.


"I’m angry because a corporation with all of the money in the world has refused to do what every other lessee of  the city was able to do: Just pay their rent," he said, noting that the city had offered a payment plan that he thought was overly generous for a multi-billion dollar corporation. "They're touting record profits, record revenues, quarter after quarter after quarter... they're bragging about opening a new SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi,"

Elo-Rivera said while the money could be chump change to SeaWorld, could do a lot of good for "community members who are coming to council and asking for investments in young people, investments in parks, investments in libraries and public safety," he said. "And we we're $10 million short because SeaWorld thinks that they're special and shouldn't pay their rent."

"It's really very disturbing," said city attorney Mara Elliot, whose office would handle the suit. "How dare they treat their partner like this?" 

She said this is not the behavior the community expects from an institution that is synonymous with San Diego.

"Sea World is an institution and many of us have grown up going to SeaWorld. It's part of our fabric. It's what attracts tourists here. And it's a relationship that has worked for almost 60 years," she said. "So for SeaWorld to be the only lessee of the city to hold out during COVID-19, using that as a pretext not to pay rent, is really a slap in the face to a community that has really embraced SeaWorld and help them to be successful."


She said if the Florida corporation thinks it doesn't have to pay their debt because it doesn't like or have to follow the federal pandemic mandates that San Diego adhered to, the city will come with receipts — and SeaWorld will have to answer to them in a court of law.

"It's time for us to put our foot down and say 'enough, you owe the city of San Diego this money, you're going to pay,'" she said. "We're going to take it very seriously and we're going to file our lawsuit as quickly as we can.

Elo-Rivera and Elliott both said that there’s always time for SeaWorld to negotiate and make good on their promise. The company's lease with the city is through 2048, but if they don't keep their agreement, Elo-Rivera said they could lose a lot more than their good relationship.

"San Diego is a special place, no matter what. I have no doubt we would be just fine. Even if SeaWorld was not here," said Elo-Rivera. "I don't want that necessarily though, but at a certain point we have to draw a line in the sand and say that nobody is so special that they don’t have to pay their bills, especially when they have the means to do."

SeaWorld Entertainment declined an interview, but sent the following statement:

"While as a matter of policy we don’t comment on potential litigation, we have enjoyed a long relationship with the City and remain hopeful that we can resolve this matter. We have partnered with the City for nearly 60 years – conducting thousands of animal rescues, numerous recycling drives and many other events. We also have paid more than $146 million in lease payments to the City of San Diego since 2010. We appreciate all the City has done and we look forward to addressing this situation."