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An Update On San Diego County's South Bay

An Update On San Diego County's South Bay
It's politics as usual and unusual in the South Bay. Our conversation with the editor of The Star News covers the candidates for Mayor of Chula Vista, the return of Juan Vargas and a challenger to Bob Filner. Also, Chula Vista has come up with a novel approach to funding a convention and visitors bureau, never mind that the city has no convention center or large hotel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We hear an awful lot about the big news stories that affect the City of San Diego, but not so much about the stories making news in other parts of the county. On These Days, we've started a series of updates on the issues that are making news all over San Diego. And, today, we'd like to inaugurate our South Bay Update. Joining us to talk about the stories making headlines south of 8, is my guest Carlos Davalos. He’s editor of The Star-News. And, Carlos, welcome to These Days.

CARLOS DAVALOS (Editor, The Star-News): Hi. Thanks for having me back. You didn’t learn your lesson, so…

CAVANAUGH: So it’s, of course, that time of year, it’s election time.

DAVALOS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: This year the mayor of Chula Vista is on the ballot, current Mayor Cheryl Cox being challenged by Steve Castaneda and a third challenger, Jorge Dominguez. It’s a nonpartisan race but characterize it in some way. Is it old guard Chula Vista versus a new wave? Or how would you look at it?

DAVALOS: I think so. I think you’d have to look at it in terms of it not being nonpartisan at least for the last four years, maybe even a little bit longer. And Cheryl Cox, I think to a lot of people, represents the old guard, the folks who have been running Chula Vista behind the scenes for the last two, three, four decades whereas you have folks like Steve Castaneda who was first elected onto the city council in 2004 and he had a lot of the support of the grassroots organizations, Crossroads II being one of them. And going into this mayoral election, he still has a lot of that support from the civic organizations. You look at it as who has the support from labor unions, and that’s going to be Steve Castaneda. Who has the support of the building contractors and the real estate folks, and that’s going to be Cheryl Cox. So it is easy to look at it in those terms, in terms of old school versus a new way of doing things. And then with the third party candidate, you know, he’s calling himself an independent and he is a registered Independent, Jorge Dominguez. Really, I think he’s got about as much chance of winning as the Padres do of the Super Bowl. But, you know, he’s going to make things interesting in terms of how the election turns out because, you know, he could take away a significant amount of voters away from Cheryl Cox or from Steve Castaneda.

CAVANAUGH: And he is also introducing some issues in these debates you’ve been having that are not necessarily something that perhaps either of the other two candidates necessarily want to talk about.

DAVALOS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. He’s hammering away at the fact that for the last four years specifically – you know, he likes to say that he’s running against Cheryl Cox so he’s hammering away at the fact that for the last four years Chula Vista has been absent leadership. It has been a rudderless ship. And when people start thinking about that, when voters start thinking about that, when people in the news media start thinking about that, well, you have to look at the last eight years and Steve Castaneda has also been part of the city council, and Dominguez, he will make reference to the fact that a lot of the poor decisions that he feels have been made in Chula Vista reach far back to 6, 8 years ago when Steve first came on board. For example, with the – one of the issues that sank the last mayor, you know, for the bodyguard for Steve Padilla, Steve Castaneda voted for that. He’s also held accountable for the fiscal mess that came about with regard to building a city hall there. So both candidates in Castaneda and Cox do have a lot of answering for, but at the same time I think Dominguez is just focusing his attention on Cheryl Cox and that’s going to actually work to Steve Castaneda’s advantage because it’s just like two sharks going after one, you know, floundering seal there, you know.

CAVANAUGH: And how much of a problem is the now defunct Gaylord development project for Cheryl Cox? She was instrumental in that. And remind us what the project was and what happened to it.

DAVALOS: Well, the project symbolically was the – it was what was going to be the savior for Chula Vista. It was going to bring in tourism. It was going to bring in jobs, development. It was going to be a convention center and a hotel resort. It was run by Gaylord, which pretty much I think everybody’s familiar with Opryland.


DAVALOS: And so it was going to be that sort of a project on the bayfront and everybody’s been wanting to redevelop or develop the bayfront for the last, I don’t know, 27, 30 years. And they had, Gaylord had, agreed to, in theory, go ahead and pursue the project in two thousand… In the last administration, the administration before Cheryl Cox. But, you know, they, Gaylord, couldn’t come to terms with the labor unions and with some of the environmental groups and before you know it they decided to pull away from the project, and Cheryl Cox has been criticized for not playing more of a role in terms of getting the labor groups, getting the labor unions, getting the environmental groups, and getting the Gaylord folks to the table to sit down and hammer out a discussion and to talk and to see where they can meet. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, I – I’m not sure. I think there’s – She can be looked to bearing some responsibility. She is, after all, an equal member of the city council but she has a bigger target. She has the title of mayor. She’s the only full time city official there in terms of elected reps. So I think she does bear some responsibility for the fact that the negotiations or that Gaylord fell through and, certainly, a lot of people, both on the Democratic and Republican sides, feel that way. And so you have this golden opportunity and who was at the helm at the time? It was Cheryl Cox, and it just disappeared and it left, and I think a lot of people are saying she could’ve done more. I don’t know how much more she could’ve done, though, because, you know, I think Gaylord got a better deal in Arizona.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Carlos Davolos. He’s editor of The Star-News. And we are talking about some of the big stories in the South Bay. Let’s move from the Chula Vista mayoral race to some of the other interesting races in the South Bay. The contest for state senate in the 40th District features two very well known names: Mary Salas versus Juan Vargas. They’re both Democrats. Tell us about that one.

DAVALOS: Well, that’s a really interesting one and, unfortunately, I haven’t been paying as close attention to that as I have been in the local races, you know, Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. But what I can tell you, with Mary Salas, I mean, she’s kind of a darling of Chula Vista. She was also on the Chula Vista City Council two terms. She left because she was termed out. And at one point she was going to run against Nick Inzunza, who was the mayor of National City. He pulled out, so she just cakewalked right into the Assembly. Juan Vargas, as some people might know, you know, started out as a city councilman for San Diego. He gained a lot of followers and loyal supporters, I think, because he had this sort of charm about him where, you know, he’d be seen out in the streets with his family waving signs, vote for Juan, and it worked. And that bought him a lot of clout with voters and so he went from being a city councilman to also an Assemblyman and then he decided that he wanted to go against Bob Filner in the 51st District for the Congressional seat. And to kind of put it bluntly, you know, Congressman Filner owns the 51st District. I mean, it’s going to be really hard to unseat him. Nevertheless, you know, Juan Vargas was kind of bankrolling his election bid on the fact that he was a Latino and that the 51st District was heavily Latino. He lost the Congressional – the last Congressional race and he did something that I think disappointed a lot of people who had supported him, and he went to go work for an insurance company. He went to work in the insurance industry and, you know, you understand, he has connections there. He’s got to put food on the table for the family. But I think, again, looking at it symbolically, I think some people felt sold out. The race between Mary Salas and Juan Vargas, as I said, I haven’t been paying close enough attention to it. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen or heard about as much blood drawn as you would hope, but then again you have two Democrats running in – for that seat so maybe there’s a tacit agreement and they’re going to play nice and then they’re going to join forces in the general.

CAVANAUGH: Carlos, if you would, you know, all that we’ve been hearing about the recession and so many of the foreclosures in San Diego County are coming from the South Bay, what is – update us on housing and the situation in the South Bay.

DAVALOS: Housing is still dismal, and I know I’m not going to win any favors with the real estate folks and the chamber types. It’s not as bad perhaps as it was a year or two ago. I think Chula Vista reflects the rest of the county and perhaps the country in that it’s bottomed out or near the bottom. At one point, one report, I think I saw that there were about 4,000 foreclosures in the eastern part of Chula Vista, which, you know, the Eastlake Ranch, Otay…

CAVANAUGH: The Eastlake – or the newer areas…


CAVANAUGH: …like Eastlake Village, yeah.

DAVALOS: Yeah, yeah. And the problem – not the problem but what comes with that is there is the South Bay Expressway, the connector route, you know, the toll road, the county’s first toll road, and I think that the developers, the folks who owned the Expressway were counting on the fact that if the housing boom wasn’t going to continue, that it wasn’t just going to implode the way it did, and that they were going to have more people living in eastern Chula Vista, they were going to have a continued growth, a continued supply of motorists. And as soon as the market started taking a dive, you know, people started foreclosing, people starting losing their jobs and they stopped driving or they didn’t drive as frequently on that Expressway. And…

CAVANAUGH: And so the actual Expressway, SR-125…

DAVALOS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …the company that owns it is going bankrupt, is that right?

DAVALOS: Filed for bankruptcy and nothing’s been finalized yet. I think it’s an effort to, one, get their biggest creditor to the negotiating table. I don’t want to butcher their name so it’s just the folks who did the actual construction of the of the Expressway, of a couple of connector routes, I think they’re in debt to them for about $400 million and part of that problem was the fact that the South Bay Expressway was supposed to open in 2006 and it, unfortunately, didn’t open until 2007 while the construction company, the contractors, are saying, well, you know, there were a lot of unforeseen delays and South Bay Expressway says, well, your delay actually cost us a nice chunk of change.


DAVALOS: And so they haven’t been able to reach a settlement or reach an agreement about, you know, who’s to blame and how much money is going to be paid off there.

CAVANAUGH: But, Carlos, that’s fascinating. You’re saying that at least part of this is directly responsible to – for the fact that there aren’t as many houses being sold in these developments as they expected it. And they’re not getting as many tolls as they thought they would.

DAVALOS: Oh, yeah. It – Initially, the best case scenario, they were thinking 30,000 to 40,000 cars a day would be driving on the tollway. This was before the housing market tanked. I think about late last year, there was a study or a report from South Bay Expressway that actually that figure is down to 23,000-24,000, so that’s almost less than half of the expected motorists and half the revenue. You compound that with the fact – well, and actually interestingly enough, back in 2006, 2007, CalTrans had estimated that by 2010, by this year, there’d be 162,000 motorists using that Expressway every day. I find that mind boggling and I reread it a couple times just to make sure that I was…


DAVALOS: …reading it the right way. That just seems – that’s almost, you know, more than – that’s a little bit more than, you know, a quarter – let’s see, 200 – 30,000 residents in Chula Vista, that’s, you know, almost half of the residents…


DAVALOS: …of Chula Vista are using that Expressway, paying four bucks a pop, two bucks a pop to drive north and south.


DAVALOS: I found the – a little bit of an exaggeration.

CAVANAUGH: In the final minutes that we have, I’d like to talk about jobs. Is anyone taking the lead to bring new jobs to South Bay either in terms of these elections that we’re going through this year or any sort of other stimulus funds or things of that nature? What are the projects that are going on to bring jobs to the South Bay?

DAVALOS: That’s a really good question and I think the frustrating part about that question is when you press the electeds, when you press the candidates, you don’t get a lot of specifics. Yes, they want to bring jobs. Yes, they want to bring development. And so they’re talking about developing the bayfront. Well, that creates construction jobs, that creates service industry jobs, but, again, in terms of a specific project, you know, like the Gaylord project, you don’t have anything yet. Recently, the City of Chula Vista celebrated the fact that the Port and Pacifica Group agreed to a landswap, which kind of clears the way, clears the path, for a development, for a smaller scale version of mixed retail use and the hotels there. But, again, in terms of specific jobs, there’s nothing on the table there. One of the city council members – or, I’m sorry, one of the city council candidates running in Chula Vista said that she would like to see Chula Vista become the medical industry hub of San Diego, Southern California. Again, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen. You know, you have Scripps Mercy, you have Sharp, and they’re struggling, you know, to make ends meet and so when it comes to specifics, again, nobody can give you more than the platitudes that we want to create jobs. We don’t know where they’re going to come from, though.

CAVANAUGH: We’re out of time. I want to thank you so much, Carlos, for speaking to us about – on our South Bay Update. Thank you.

DAVALOS: I appreciate you having me.

CAVANAUGH: Carlos Davalos is editor of The Star-News. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, You’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up on KPBS.