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Part 2: San Diego Port Cities Divided Over Money, Projects

Audio

Aired 4/20/09

The San Diego port district has the word unified in its official title.  But talk to the cities that make up the port and you'll find the agency resembles a family divided.  The roots of the bad feelings?  Money and big bayfront projects.  KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

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(Photo courtesy of The Port of San Diego)

San Diego's waterfront has Seaport Village, cruise ship terminals, parks, hotels and the embarcadero.

National City's waterfront has no equivalent .  In National City, premier real estate is temporary home to imported cars passing through on the way to dealerships. National City Mayor Ron Morrison says it's an outrageous use of the city's treasured coastline.

"It's some of the most expensive land in Southern California and we use as if it was land out in the middle of Imperial County," Morrison said.

The big losers, he says, are the people who live in National City. "We have a little over three miles of  bayfront. Almost two miles of that is taken up by the Navy. About a mile and a quarter of that is taken up by the port. We are the only port city that we are aware of in the state of California that does not have one inch of public access to its bayfront," said Morrison.

Morrison  wants to see parks, hotels, maybe a sports arena and other sources of property, sales and tourism taxes for National City. But he says the port of San Diego ignores his pleas.

"One of the arguments was it's not National City's land and I think one of the most polite arguments is bull it is our land. And we've given up more than any other city has given up. We've been the before and after of Cinderella. We've been the forgotten stepchild. We're remembered only when they need something to dump on," said Morrison.

And he says all the other cities of the port are favored above National City. "The other areas of San Diego that's in the port, the more affluent areas, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Coronado. They treat very well," Morrison said.

But Port Commissioner Michael Bixler has a very different perspective.

"The city of National City has asked for development of the very projects they have today. It is pretty difficult to go back I think and say we don't like the impact of what we got. We have a different vision today," said Bixler.

Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox isn't pleased with her city's situation. She says the Chula Vista vision for its bayfront has been frustratingly unfulfilled since 1975. 

"This is a long time not to have anything come with a sense of permanency to Chula Vista's bayfront other than two very well-run yacht marinas, a boat yard that provides jobs that and two very nice restaurants and an RV park," said Cox.

Late last year, Gaylord Entertainment pulled out of a plan to build a billion-dollar resort hotel and convention center. Cox says the port could improve the prospects for another project on the waterfront if it moved ahead with an environmental study.
 
But fulfillment of Chula Vista's dreams may clash with the vision in San Diego. San Diego brings in 80 percent of the $90 million in real estate revenue to the port annually from rent payments on its waterfront. But it receives the least money proportionately to the other port cities. Former San Diego Port Commissioner  Peter Q. Davis says that needs to change.

"Right now the city of San Diego has a financial problem. Charity begins at home. The city of San Diego is an 80 percent shareholder if you use revenues. It should get 80 percent of the revenues in one form of another,"  said Daivs.

Meanwhile, National City's Mayor Ron Morrison says people there are starting to ask what's in it for the city to belong to the port.

"There's been a lot of discussion actually recently about the relevancy of the port. Can it be done on a city by city basis rather than having a unified port. You still have long-term contracts.  I know that makes the port paranoid but it's a legitimate discussion," said Morrison.

Such talk misses the point says San Diego's new port representative Scott Peters. "We can all play this battle of I want my city to get its fair share and that can be our focus but really I think we all have to look at the port as an asset for the whole region," Peters said.

Peters says the risk of breaking up the port and sending money to all five cities is that they would be tempted to spent it on paving streets and other needs….far, far away from their waterfronts.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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