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Playground for all

Wealthy North County welcomes diversity

Defining North County isn't easy, especially when people who live there can't agree on where it is in the first place.

Some say the region stretches from La Jolla to Borrego Springs, while others argue that it goes no further than Del Mar to the south and Ramona to the east. Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch are geographical nomads -- sometimes in, sometimes out.

But some things are clear no matter which way you slice it. On the whole, North County is "rich, white and Republican," as Oceanside political consultant Jack Orr likes to put it.

According to demographic statistics, he's right. Nearly 16 percent of North County residents earn more than $75,000 a year, compared to 10 percent of the rest of the county, according to figures from Market Statistics.

Nearly 7 in every 10 residents are white, a higher percentage than elsewhere in the county.

(Those statistics, like others in this story, define North County's eastern edges as Valley Center and Ramona, and its southern edges as Del Mar and Poway. The Pacific Ocean and county line define the western and northern edges.)

And Republicans? With the exception of some pockets of liberalism and environmentalism near the beach, they rule the political roost, controlling city councils and congressional seats.

North County is also economically diverse, a magnet for tourists and home to some of the worst traffic jams south of San Clemente.

Some 942,000 people live there; if North County was a city, it would be the eleventh most populous in the country, outranking San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Washington D.C.

But for all the efforts to meld North County into one cohesive region, it is still a place of two different parts -- coastal and inland.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is the climate. While Escondidans bake in 100-plus temperatures during the summer, the mercury drops by 10 degrees or more at the coast, which is blessed by natural air conditioning.

But there are other contrasts too. Valley Center and Ramona of the inland region are agricultural and rural, a world away from the ultra-wealth and sophistication of Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe.

As for economics, Orr thinks he knows the score. The coastal areas -- Del Mar to Oceanside -- are increasingly becoming a playground for the wealthy, he said. Within 20 years, he predicted, "the only people who will live within a mile of the beach will be millionaires. I'm sorry, but the poor are not going to inherit the coastline."

Meanwhile, in the world according to Orr, the "worker bees" will continue to settle in the cheaper inland areas -- Vista, San Marcos and Escondido.

"North County continues to be a mix of numerous cities offering many different lifestyles," said Robert Rauch, a hotel analyst based in Carmel Valley.

Of course, many things bring the region together. The business of making money unites the whole of North County.

Cami Mattson, president and CEO of the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau, likens the region to Scottsdale, Marin County, Santa Barbara and even

Tuscany -- all upscale places that have their own identity but are closely tied to a large, more diverse city nearby.

"We're selling San Diego, we're selling San Diego-plus," Mattson said. "We have branded the region to be the premier year-round resort destination. It's not a suburb anymore."

There's a lot to sell to visitors. North County is bubbling over with fancy hotels and resorts (La Costa Resort & Spa, the Four Seasons Aviara, the

Rancho Bernardo Inn, the Golden Door Spa) and tourist attractions (Legoland, the Wild Animal Park, the beaches).

Adding to the bounty, tourism officials are more than happy to fold the wealthy seaside enclave of La Jolla into their definition of North County. That gives them bragging rights to the Birch Aquarium, UC San Diego and the Salk Institute.

Business boosters have plenty to boast about, too. Plenty of technology companies have set up shop in North County, and business parks are setting records for growth. Agriculture, tourism and the military round out the economic picture in the region.

"We have a good balance of different types of businesses," said Lynn Stuart, president and CEO of the North County Economic Development Council. "We have a very diversified economy."

The future holds obstacles, of course -- traffic, growth issues and rising housing costs. Pockets of poverty continue to dot the cities from Oceanside to Escondido, and schools remain overcrowded.

But Orr is hopeful. North County, he said, welcomes everybody.

"The great thing about living in North County is that even though it's white, it's not that way by design," he said. "It doesn't care. It is very relaxed compared to the East. North County is probably the least prejudicial society I've ever lived in."

The challenge will be keeping it that way.

Dotinga is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.

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