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Executive Roundtable

South County leaders predict growth spurt

South County is preparing for a large growth spurt, as long-range projects start construction and new investors head south, regional leaders said March 13 at a roundtable discussion held by The Daily Transcript.

Companies are increasingly optimistic about the local economy and the opportunities available — compared to a few years ago, when businesses didn’t know if they would make it out of the recession — to now, when they are talking about expansion.

Cindy Gompper-Graves, CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, said most of the county’s development in the next 10 years will be in the South Bay.

“We have been planning for the last decade to get ready for this exact moment in time, and our major projects are moving right ahead,” Gompper-Graves said. “We are ready to go.”

Some of the upcoming long-term projects in the early phases are the 20-year master-planned redevelopment of Brown Field, the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan; a university campus and business park in southeastern Chula Vista; Milenia, the 210-acre master-planned community in eastern Chula Vista; and the recently approved update to the Otay Mesa Community Plan, which will add residential and commercial space.

There are also several ongoing projects that will make travel easier for business across Tijuana and Mexico, such as the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry expansion; the second Otay Mesa Land Port of Entry and State Route 11; and the cross-border pedestrian bridge terminal to link Tijuana International Airport and Otay Mesa.

One of the key drivers for South Bay growth is its open land and space.

Kaitlin Murphy, senior vice president of Murphy Development Co., said Murphy Development has 65 acres of entitled land ready for development in South County.

There are only six jobs per acre in Otay Mesa compared to about 30 in Kearny Mesa, she said, according to statistics gathered for the Otay Mesa Community Plan update. But this will improve because of the planned development for Otay Mesa over the next 10 to 20 years.

“We really see a huge opportunity for growth to bring higher-paying jobs, not just distribution and manufacturing, but office-type uses [for companies like Qualcomm] and things like that,” Murphy said, adding that companies can build and rent space for half the price in Otay Mesa compared to North and Central San Diego.

Mark Watson, general manager of the Otay Water District, pointed out that Otay Mesa is second only to the city of San Diego in the county for available tract-land for housing and first in the county for available land to develop commercially.

Rob Hixson, senior vice president at CBRE, said there are roughly 1,200 to 1,500 acres of available land in the county’s jurisdiction in the South Bay to be developed. He added that there is a need for industrial buildings and business parks.

South County’s location also gives it power to fuel the region.

Rich D’Ascoli, CEO of the Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors, said that National City’s port helps bring jobs to 135-acre National City Marine Terminal, which imports and exports vehicles, heavy equipment and major project cargo.

“I think it’s overlooked a little bit, [but] it’s a cash cow," D’Ascoli said. "It just keeps bringing in revenue and revenue that is shared throughout the region. You don’t look at it because it’s not all new … but when you bring goods and services in (to National City), there is a trickle-down effect.”

National City also has a newly renovated Pier 32 Marina for boating and yachting, with a restaurant, lounge and boater’s store.

Hixson said National City is a great city to do business with, and Watson said National City has affordable housing for first-time buyers and newer stock in the eastern part of the city.

Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney said even though his city is primarily a bedroom community, it is in a “renaissance,” with a hotel, a restaurant from the Cohn Restaurant Group and mixed-use development giving the beachfront a new look.

“Financially, we might make out better without a redevelopment [agency] because of the way the funds were transferred,” Janney said. “Just in this year alone we are getting an extra several hundred thousand dollars, if not more, to our general fund because of the loss of redevelopment. We laid the groundwork for people to come in and invest.”

Hixson said Mexico should not be overlooked on how it can continue be an economic driver for South County.

“Otay Mesa really started by serving a lot of the maquiladoras that are in Mexico,” Hixson said. “And [Tijuana] — with 58 million square feet of industrial buildings — is doing all sorts of things down there that are very technical. People don’t understand that they are building heart valves and doing defense work, like drones. It’s amazing what engineers are doing down there once they get out of school.”

Hixson added that because of this, he is seeing companies move from Northern and Central San Diego to Otay Mesa because workers in Mexico commute and do business along the U.S. border, and roads and land port of entries have improved.

Current and future educational resources also make South County a place to invest.

Southwestern College has its main campus in Chula Vista, along with satellites and higher education centers in National City, Otay Mesa and San Ysidro. The college system will be adding classrooms, offices and infrastructure, thanks to the $389 million Proposition R bond measure that voters passed in 2008.

Dr. Melinda Nish, superintendent and president of Southwestern College, said the community college has been approached by the developers of Brown Field to help support their workforce and start a joint program for career training in aviation.

“That’s part of why I came here [two years ago], because I could see the potential of what was happening here, and it’s really exciting,” Nish said. “I don’t think there are that many areas in California that are going to realize what we are starting to realizing right now, that a great foundation is being laid.”

The panel agreed that the region still needs to be marketed better to bring new faces to live and work in the area. And one of the tools should be to promote the school systems.

“The marketing of South County is getting better, but getting that to the executive levels at companies and getting them to realize what’s down here has been a challenge,” said Stacy Cannon, senior associate with design and planning firm Gensler.

D’Ascoli added: “If I had the opportunity to talk to buyers, sellers and Realtors around the county, I would want to tell them, ‘Hey, look at some of the inventory in Chula Vista’ because the neighborhoods in the city rival anything in Rancho Bernardo, and the elementary school district (in Chula Vista) rivals any school in Poway."

Gompper-Graves said North County still has a stereotype of the South Bay not being a safe place to do business, but businesses outside the region don’t have that perception.

“They see an access to an international market, lower facility cost and greater access to workforce on both sides of the border,” Gompper-Graves said. “I think the hits we have taken recently are the lack of incentives to offer to companies that are willing to relocate. With the death of the enterprise zone, that was a huge hit.”


Roundtable Participants

* Stacy Cannon, Senior Associate, Gensler

* Rich D'Ascoli, CEO, Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors

* Cindy Gomper Graves, CEO, South County Economic Development Council

* Rob Hixson, Senior Vice President, CBRE

* Jim Janney, Mayor, City of Imperial Beach

* Kaitlin Murphy, Senior Vice President, Murphy Development Co.

* Melinda Nish, President, Southwestern College

* Mark Watton, General Manager, Otay Water District

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