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Border crossings, hotels spur South County growth

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Faster border crossings, expanded truck routes and new hotels are spurring a wave of economic growth in the southern part of San Diego County, local economists, business executives and politicians said at a six-hour economic forum of the South County Economic Development Corp. on Oct. 10.

In general, economists said, the county as a whole has returned to the job levels and economic growth rates it was experiencing before the recession began, and South County is poised to benefit more than other areas from some specific events, such as last month's expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing.

"Everything that people in South County have been working on for so long is finally coming to fruition," said Cindy Gompper-Graves, who heads South County EDC. "The economy's turning around and we have to make sure that the growth that's happening now produces more growth."

One of the most significant events that has happened in South County is the expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing. Since the United States increased the number of border gates last month, rush-hour wait times that used to last longer than two or three hours during peak traffic times are just 10 to 25 minutes.

The long wait times used to cost San Diego County around $3.4 billion in total output and income losses, by slowing the time it took trucks to transport freight and making it harder for people to cross the border to do business, according to estimates by the San Diego Association of Governments.

The easier traffic flow should aid manufacturers that operate on both sides of the border, many of which are in Otay Mesa and other areas of South County. In addition, it will make it easier for Mexican shoppers to come north to buy U.S. goods.

"We should soon be seeing numbers on what impact this has on things like entertainment and retail sales," Gompper-Graves said. "I can't wait to see what happens during the Christmas season."

In addition, some new hotel developments are spurring growth in the area, such as the Bayfront Chula Vista project on San Diego Bay's southern waterfront and Pier South Resort, Marriott's new hotel in Imperial Beach.

City officials from Imperial Beach said the Marriott, which includes a gourmet restaurant operated by the Cohn family, has been a catalyst for growth along Seacoast Drive, drawing restaurants, retailers and a branch of Coronado Brewing Co. Business sites that stood vacant for years are now being snapped up pretty quickly, they said.

Nevertheless, the region still faces major challenges, such as stagnant wages and unemployment rates in the double-digits, even during the best of times.

"On the whole, the county has more than recovered the number of jobs that we lost during the recession, but most of the jobs that we regained pay well below the average salary," said James Gerber, economist with San Diego State University.

"We've seen some growth of high-end, high-skilled jobs, but we've seen a lot more growth in low-end, low-skilled, low-wage jobs. It's not just San Diego where that's happening. It's the country as a whole."

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