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Business leaders back reimagining of border

The push to unite and market San Diego County, Imperial County and Baja California as one mega-region to industries and companies looking to relocate or open shop is still going strong, with a variety of organizations joining the collaboration efforts.

Changing perceptions about our southern neighbor, improving the border-crossing infrastructure and re-establishing an east-west rail system are now the keys to maximizing the area’s potential, some say, while a new report out Thursday advocates for a possible different approach.

“From our perspective, from the (Economic Development Corp.’s) perspective, it was OK: We can’t compete in some ways with other states that can offer land up, we don’t have huge incentives, but what if our region, San Diego, is bigger than San Diego? What if we drew a circle around all of this and said ‘This is our region?’” said Christina Luhn, executive director of the Cali Baja Bi-National Mega-Region, which encompasses San Diego County, Imperial County and Baja California.

“Of course, we want companies to stay here, but if a company … decides they can’t meet their needs in San Diego, we would rather them stay [in the mega-region] than we would go to Texas or Arizona or anyplace else,” Luhn said. “And the reason is because the money stays here -- money moves around, people move around across the border.”

Coupling the land and labor from Baja with the infrastructure and market on the American side and a highly educated workforce on both makes the mega-region a tough alternative for competition to best.

Luhn said the mega-region organization has identified five overarching industries that the area is already known for and is primed for growth in: clean tech, advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, applied biotech and logistics.

So what is holding back the effort from reaching full actualization? The biggie is inefficiencies at the border, which speakers at the Corky McMillan Cross-Border Economics program Wednesday said are draining the region’s economy of $8 billion annually.

Jerry Sanders, president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said San Diego’s congressional representatives were able to secure federal funding for improvements to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which now has an expected completion date of 2017.

Stephen Williams, a founding partner at Sentre Partners, said it isn’t enough to wait for the federal government to fund and fix the crossings, where commercial trucks can experience up to several-hour delays, which is where much of the loss of capital figures in.

Williams said the borders are “America’s cash registers,” and a local effort is what is needed to immediately improve the speed and process of crossing.

In addition to a more widespread use of Sentri passes, he suggested the adoption of new technologies to speed the flow of trucks: One example that he said is in the works would attach a GPS and sensor to trucks, so when they approach the border it is immediately known where they came from and whether the back has been opened.

Aside from these vehicle and pedestrian routes, the panelists all agreed that a restoration of the east-west railway system, envisioned and created by John Spreckles but abandoned decades ago, is necessary. The tracks would connect Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. railways in San Diego, and then cross the border twice to meet up with Union Pacific rail near Calexico in Imperial County.

“We need to help get a train moving that can carry cargo both to the east and to LA -- to Union Pacific and BNSF. It’s a big, big deal,” Williams said.

Another big deal in this endeavor, according to the panelists, is changing people’s perceptions about Tijuana, particularly in terms of safety, which they said is still an often-heard reason for why more San Diegans don’t venture south.

Enrique Esparza, chairman of the board of the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation, said that while Tijuana has its share of problems, they are being addressed, and Sanders added that Tijuana is actually similar to San Diego in terms of security.

“I’d suggest that in San Diego, there are probably places you probably wouldn’t go to at midnight unless you were looking for trouble, and I’d suggest the same thing in Tijuana,” Sanders said. “That’s one of the perceptions that we’ve been trying to change.”

Not everyone is ready to jump onboard this exact bandwagon quite so fast. A report released Thursday by Creative Class Group in partnership with Global Connect, a research division of UC San Diego Extension, and spearheaded by Malin Burnham and I.D.E.A. Partners co-founders Pete Garcia and David Malmuth, proposes a “frictionless border” to harness the benefits outlined above, but suggests that the first step in doing so is to reimagine the border entirely.

“We’ve come up with the word ‘frictionless border,’” Garcia said. “There’s an impediment right now at the border, and though there’s tremendous commerce, the impediments are squandering the potential. We just think it needs to be reinvented, but we’re not going to argue over the weeds. This is a top-level conversation about reimagining what the border could be.”

While Garcia and Malmuth said they have worked with the mega-region initiative and know the leaders well, this is a separate endeavor -- they want to spark a conversation about a reworking of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and what it can, and should, become economically and culturally.

Though the report is mostly higher-level and doesn’t get into details (since the details depend on what the border should look and function like), one point the duo is advocating for is to allow input on the border from the Departments of Commerce and State, as opposed to solely the Department of Homeland Security.

One thing both sets of leaders can agree on, no matter the final vision of the border, is that the current state of affairs doesn’t serve to optimize or enhance either country -- and it should.

“We don’t have a definition of that end product, but we know that what we have now is not working well,” Garcia said.

The Cali baja Mega-Region includes San Diego County, Imperial County and Baja California. Image courtesy of calibaja.net

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