Hoping to strengthen San Diego’s ties south of the border, Mayor Bob Filner is opening an office this week in the shiny high-rise headquarters of the Tijuana Economic Development Corp., or DEITAC.
Although the office initially will be staffed on a part-time basis, Filner hopes it will become a full-time liaison site for working on such issues as regional trade, border traffic and environmental concerns.
“We are dos ciudades, pero una region: two cities, but one region,” Filner told reporters last week, speaking Spanish with the accent of his native Pittsburgh. “Baja California and San Diego and Imperial counties all have to work together as a single region.”
Filner even plans to have a dedicated phone line on his desk to connect him with Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante. "He calls it a 'bat phone,' but I prefer to call it a 'hot line,'" Filner said.
With the border’s marathon traffic bottlenecks and growing concerns about narco violence, Filner will need more than a good phone line if he hopes to make headway on the mega-region idea.
Long lines at the border have led to fewer people and cargo making the crossing, shaving an estimated $7.2 billion off the regional economy, according to Freerk Boedeltje, research fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.
At the same time, U.S. tourists have been avoiding Tijuana because of fears of drug-related violence, as well as the long wait times to get back home.
Carlos Graizbord, a former planning director for Tijuana, said although much of the city is thriving, half the tourism-oriented businesses along Avenida Revolution have been going belly-up.
“People on this side of the border have no idea of how things are down there,” he Graizbord.
On the other hand, with labor costs in China rising toward Mexican levels, U.S. businesses are once again looking at Tijuana as a potential manufacturing center -- an idea that could fuel more interest in the mega-region.
Christina Anne Luhn, director of the Mega-Region Initiative at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., said there is increasing interest in the region, including from a group of French businesses she spoke with in Mexico City last year.
"We can't offer all the other business incentives that other regions offer," she said. "But one thing we can offer is the mega-region, with its wide variety of skill sets and salary levels."
Last month, Chris Anderson -- a cofounder of San Diego’s 3D Robotics -- wrote a column in The New York Times suggesting that Tijuana “might hold the long-sought answer for how American manufacturers can compete with those in China, India and the next generation of economic powerhouses.”
Filner is encouraged by such talk.
“I hear that people are beginning to say that Mexico is the new China,” Filner said. That would be a turnaround from the past couple decades, when China became “the new Mexico,” attracting low cost away from Tijuana. “People are returning to Mexico now because the costs in China are going up.”
Anderson’s column mentioned low-cost labor but added that the chief attraction is having a shorter supply chain: “You can drive from our San Diego engineering center (on Convoy Street) to our Tijuana factory in 20 minutes,” he wrote.
He added that in China, he would have to place bulk orders of thousands of products to get cheap pricing.
“Now that we carry out our production locally, we’re able to make only what we need that week,” he added.
The idea that Tijuana and San Diego comprise a single region has become a mantra among civic leaders on both sides of the border over the past four decades. But tight border restrictions imposed after Sept. 11, coupled with the recent after-effects of the recent recession, has discouraged tourism and slowed trade.
Pedestrian and auto traffic are still below the peaks they hit between 2004 and 2007, during the run-up to the recession, which means less money is being spent in San Diego, Boedeltje said in a study last year. And the value of cross-border truck trade has edged down after more than doubling between 1998 and 2008.
The border authorities have been trying to ease traffic by adding more security booths at the San Ysidro crossing. So far, the number of booths has risen from 24 to 40, with plans to add 20 more in the near future. But even with the near-doubling of the lanes, the lines continue to be hours long.
“They think efficiency will be so much better with those gates, but I’m not sure,” Filner said. “I think the problem has more to do with policy than infrastructure.”
Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said such problems -- particularly related to the border wait-times -- make it a “much more challenging environment” to push for more integration along the border.
On the other hand, Erie said over the long-term it makes a sense to encourage more integration across the border. He added that as a former congressman, Filner is in a relatively strong position to deal with the main challenges hampering border activity: federal immigration and border enforcement policies.
Filner has already talked to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about ways to improve the border wait and he says he plans more talks in the near future.