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San Diego is a millitary town …or is it?

It's the choice no one really wants to face, but San Diegans will make it this year. After decades of debate and reams of reports, the public gets to choose this fall whether to keep the San Diego Airport at Lindbergh Field, or move it. KPBS and Envision San Diego held a forum this week with representatives from the military and civilian communities. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

San Diegans might justifiably feel somewhat anxious about the impending deadline. They have to make a choice in November on a question that a generation of politicians has failed to resolve - one that will have a irrevocable impact on the region's future. Former California Senator Steve Peace, who played a leading role in bringing matters to such a head, frames the airport vote as positively as he can.

PEACE: "If we put it off another year we're just going to loose more options, so the important thing is make a decision, so we have the very best airport we can have given the essentially the life style choice San Diegans made.

And that's what this decision will be a lifestyle choice. San Diego has always been ambivalent about what it wants to be when it grows up. Building a new international airport will accelerate San Diego's future growth keeping the airport where it is will act as a brake on expansion in a decade or so.

Steve Peace created the San Diego Airport Authority to examine all options and boil them down to a choice citizens can make in November.

The question is often framed as a struggle between San Diego's civilian and military interests, since the military owns the real estate that offers the most realistic and feasible alternatives to Lindbergh Field. That includes Camp Pendleton, North Island and most notably, Miramar marine air base.

Here's an interesting moment in the KPBS forum when a member of the airport authority was encouraged by moderator Gloria Penner to confront marine corps Major General Michael Lehnert. Here's Paul Nieto of the Airport Authority.

NIETO: "We're in the middle of a war , we're not looking for any issue today that look to military readiness but can we sit down and put our 1015 year hat on and see if there may be solutions for both of us to protect military readiness and yet increase San Diego's air transportation capacity."

PENNER "Nice question lets ask the general to respond.."

LEHNERT "I'd be glad to respond! No matter how hard we look at it, the marine corp at least does not see a win win option, it's always a win lose, with the military being on the losing end."

But Wade Sanders, former Under Secretary of the Navy, pointed out this is not a decision the Marine Corp can make. It's a political decision, and like all good political decisions, it should be based on what the voters want. ."

SANDERS: "In San Diego we have a situation very similar to Kawalawi which was a little island off Hawaii that the navy used to throw shells at and the only way the navy gave up those bases was cos there was a huge outcry from the civilian population, and all the political leadership lined up behind that decision, and the decision was made by the White House."

But so far in San Diegans there has not been a huge outcry on the issue. And the political leadership is blatantly absent when it comes to questions about using military bases. Not a single city, county or federal elected official responded to an invitation to attend the KPBS forum.
San Diego's symbiotic relationship with the military is one reason for the public's ambivalence. The Navy helped pay for the harbor and boosted the region's early growth, so as early as World War One, San Diego was firmly established as a Navy town. Now the nation is at war again. Political scientist, Virginia Lewis of the University of San Diego says the toll on families based in San Diego affects the way people feel about the military.

VIRGINIA: "I think that the empathy level might be higher than it was even a decade ago, so I think there's a general sense of support for the military."

Money is a factor too of course. The San Diego Economic Development Corporation estimates the military industrial complex is a major driver of the region's economy, generating about 15 per cent of the gross regional product. USD economist Alan Gin says to risk losing some of that would require some guts.

GIN: "So the question is would you be willing to settle for a lot of pain in the short term in exchange for maybe better things in the future."

Gin points out the military's economic presence has given San Diego stability which has helped the region ride out recent economic downturns.

It's also true that the military is in a period of intense change, and can't predict what will happen in the near or long term future. After five rounds of base closures, the navy and marines already feels squeezed and are not anxious to give up any more footholds.
The combination of a military that cannot predict its needs, and a region that cannot decide how it wants to grow, does not lend itself to radical decisions.

At this week's KPBS forum, Larry Blumberg of Bonita asked Steve Peace what exactly the public will be asked to decide this November.

BLUMBERG/PEACE: "The language of the ballot is the key criteria I think, and can the language say 'expansion of Lindberg or Miramar?'"

PEACE: "Yes, if it's done very carefully, OK so that yes means here's an option that we've studied in going away from Lindbergh, our best place to go with all its faults is this place, wherever they chose, and 'no' means we're going to have to stay here at Lindbergh and all the shortcomings associated with that, and then the public makes a reasonable choice between two visions."

Both outcomes are visionary, Peace insists. If San Diegans choose to stay at Lindbergh Field, then making the best use of the limited space there will take as much if not more vision than building a new airport somewhere else. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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