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Mayoral Candidates Wade Into San Diego Port Issues

— Ask most San Diegans what comes to mind when they think of the downtown waterfront and you might get answers involving cruise ships, harbor ferries and the Convention Center.

Aired 5/18/12 on KPBS News.

With San Diego's potential influence over the Port Commission and so much of the downtown waterfront falling under Port jurisdiction, perhaps it’s no surprise the city’s four major mayoral candidates have strong opinions on what the future of the Port should be.

A Dole cargo ship is unloaded in port in San Diego Bay.
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Above: A Dole cargo ship is unloaded in port in San Diego Bay.

Ask who oversees the waterfront and San Diego Bay and the answer may become a bit foggy.

The Unified Port of San Diego is in charge of the bayside parks, the cruise ship and cargo terminals and waterfront businesses. The Port Commission oversees it all. Commission members are appointed by the Port’s five member cities. Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City each appoint one member. San Diego gets to appoint three.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher is the latest candidate to release his Port plan. It calls for increasing the Navy and Marine presence in the San Diego Bay.

“We spend a lot of time talking about technology and tourism, when the single largest driver of the San Diego economy is our defense and military presence,” he said. “And they provide a lot of good jobs, not only to the Marines and sailors that are here, but to the folks employed in the defense industry.”

Fletcher also calls for increasing the region’s exports by $5 billion by the year 2020, which resembles a similar goal of President Barack Obama, who wants to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. Fletcher said one of the Port’s biggest challenges is getting local businesses to become its customers.

“You do an analysis, and you go out and say, ‘Hey, you’re shipping this out of Long Beach, we could do this out of San Diego.’ And they go, ‘Gosh, we didn’t even know,’” Fletcher said.

Fletcher believes the Port has a lot of potential to create middle class jobs in San Diego. Congressman Bob Filner said that’s been his message all along.

“The single biggest potential we have to grow middle class jobs is our port,” he said. “It’s a big Navy base; it’s a tourist center. We’ve started doing commerce, but we’ve nowhere reached our potential. We need to expand it as quickly and completely as possible.”

Like other candidates, Filner stresses that San Diego needs to act as a regional leader when it comes to the Port. And he said leadership has been lacking. He tells a story of trying to bring Maersk Shipping, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, to the Port 15 years ago. Filner said the deal fell through because the Port didn’t want to put in the needed infrastructure and Maersk got frustrated.

“They were willing to pay for all the infrastructure. It was a question of do we have the political support and the will to make it happen,” he said. “So it’s more leadership then anything else that’s the requirement here.”

Filner said for too long the Port has just been a side venture for city leaders and not something they’ve focused on. But Councilman Carl DeMaio said it’s the Port that lacks focus.

“I think they’ve done some things right, but on the balance there’s not a clear vision at the Port for how to drive job creation,” he said. “And I want their emphasis to be on economic growth, job creation and I want a better emphasis on collaborating with the city on important regional projects like our waterfront.”

If elected, DeMaio said he’d conduct a performance audit of the Port within his first 90 days in office. He said he wants greater transparency and accountability at the Port. And he said San Diego’s Port Commissioners better back him up.

“You’re going to find a very hands-on relationship between myself and our three Port Commissioners,” he said. “And I will insists that either they buy in to a comprehensive and clear vision that’s supported by the city of San Diego, or we will find new commissioners.”

DeMaio does not believe the Port is maximizing its potential. But District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis points out the Port is just one level of government the city has to deal with on waterfront issues.

“The state law governs how the Port uses its property. (Also), we have community plans, zoning plans from the city that we have to work with,” she said. “So I think it’s all in the context of that that we have any conversation about what goes on at the Port.”

Dumanis’ top Port priorities include improving transportation to and around the Port and nearby Lindbergh Field and getting projects off the drawing board. She said San Diegans are aware the Port is one of the city’s greatest assets. And she believes it’s been managed well.

“The Port Commission and the Port leadership, Wayne Darbeau, are working well together to leverage all the resources that we can get,” she said. “As mayor I would help bring people to the table and continue that in an even stronger way.”

San Diego’s next mayor will likely spend a lot of time dealing with the Port. Between an increasing military presence, efforts to revamp the waterfront and trying to keep afloat in the cargo business, the Port is sure to demand a lot of attention in the years to come.

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