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Revitalization picking up steam in South County

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Economic renaissance, revival, metamorphosis. Call it what you will, but South County is clearly and quickly developing into an economic force in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

Every city in South County has embraced a range of revitalization plans, encompassing commercial development, residential housing, educational facilities and transportation improvements. City leaders are tapping into a new collective determination to promote South County's plentiful, unique assets.

"South County is picking up a huge head of steam," said Ed Lopez, chairman of the South County Economic Development Council, which is hosting its 14th annual Economic Summit Friday, Oct. 22. "The wave of economic development that hit North County in the '80s and '90s is now surging south. It's our turn to shine."

Indicators of Lopez's prognostication abound. Chula Vista is working to develop a 1,500-acre collaborative university project and has attracted the interest of several local universities.

"The development of the University Park and Research Center will be one of the most important milestones in the history of Chula Vista and the South County," said Chula Vista Mayor Stephen C. Padilla.

In addition to its university proposal, the city has launched efforts to revitalize its downtown, and is accelerating plans to develop its bayfront -- the largest, developable expanse of waterfront acreage on the West Coast.

"Chula Vista, the Unified Port District and a citizens advisory committee comprised of community stakeholders are working hand-in-hand to ensure the best possible use of the bayfront lands," said Port Commissioner Bill Hall. "The final product is going to be a great asset to the community."

The region's second largest city also is moving ahead on expanding its auto park, with two new dealerships already committed.

Already under construction in National City are a new $22 million educational complex and a $17 million library. The Sycuan tribe has agreed to build a three-star, $30 million hotel near Interstate 5. Developers are moving forward on plans to build hundreds of new condominiums. The city has committed significant funding to renovate long stretches of Plaza Boulevard and Highland Avenue as the first step toward showcasing Filipino- and Hispanic-owned businesses in a village concept, similar to Little Italy in downtown San Diego.

National City has an estimated $500 million in projects either under construction or in the planning pipeline.

"We're at a tipping point of opportunity," said Nick Inzunza, mayor of National City. "Business leaders are getting the message that we're serious about aggressively pursuing economic development here that attracts jobs and improves the aesthetic appeal of our community."

Imperial Beach recently adopted an economic development plan that will help the city take better advantage of its community and cultural assets, including a world-renown estuary.

The city is already working to give Palm Avenue a dynamic facelift to create an attractive gateway to the community. And, lot-by-lot, aging beachfront houses are being demolished, soon to be replaced with multimillion-dollar homes with ocean views.

"With consensus reached on our economic development plan, it's now full speed ahead on implementing it," said Imperial Beach Mayor Diane Rose. "It will be the key to our community success."

The city of Coronado has jumped on the economic development bandwagon as well, recently adopting the Orange Avenue Corridor Specific Plan, which emphasizes small-scale development and unique shops.

So far, over 80,000 square feet of retail and office space has been approved with much being leased or sold before completion.

"This plan will be a major, positive force in defining the future business climate for our downtown," said Coronado Mayor Tom Smisek.

Additionally, Hotel del Coronado has been approved for a master plan expansion that will add 213 guest rooms, 20,000 square feet of conference space as well as public amenities.

The city is also nearing completion on its $33 million Glorietta Bay Civic Center and Promenade, which will accommodate a new community center, city hall, municipal pool, playhouse and waterfront activities.

In San Ysidro, the city of San Diego Redevelopment Agency, through the city's Community and Economic Development Department, is working with developers on the second phase of The Shops at Las Americas.

This project is recognized as the largest, most significant retail development along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico, not only because of its size and scope but also for its innovative public-private partnership structure.

This new phase, scheduled for a spring 2005 completion, will add 188,000 square feet of retail space and generate 550 new jobs.

Additional phases could include a mixed-use, village-oriented component with multifamily housing and neighborhood-serving retail. A new pedestrian border crossing into Mexico is also planned as part of the multiphased project.

"Redevelopment is just one of many tools we're using to capitalize on the economic development opportunities in the border region," said Hank Cunningham, director of San Diego's Community and Economic Development Department, which administers the area's redevelopment project area and other business incentive programs.

Creating new retail shopping opportunities for Tijuana residents has paid dividends. Billions of dollars in exports and imports flow through the border annually and Mexicans cross over to spend more than $2.6 billion every year in the San Diego region. To help facilitate this commerce, the San Ysidro border crossing is being streamlined and a third border crossing is planned in Otay Mesa.

East Otay Mesa is the last spot in the county where large companies can expand. Some 3,000 acres of land are available, 1,000 of which is dedicated to a technology park.

"This area is a tremendous resource and opportunity for high-tech and biotech companies looking for a campus environment," said San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox.

In addition to available land, incentive programs unique to South County are luring businesses. The California Enterprise Zone program allows businesses in Otay Mesa, San Ysidro, Chula Vista and National City to claim tax credits on employee's wages (up to $31,500 per employee) and new equipment purchases.

The Foreign Trade Zone, encompassing San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, provides importers and exporters with opportunities to reduce, defer and/or eliminate U.S. Customs duties.

Part of South County's strength is its backbone of small businesses. But the area hasn't gone unnoticed by world-class corporate players, including Hitachi, which relocated its North American headquarters to Chula Vista two years ago.

Then there are large businesses that have always called South County home, names like Knight & Carver Yachts and the Mile of Cars whose 22 dealerships lead the county in automobile sales.

"South County has been stoking the fires of economic development for several years," said Cindy Gompper-Graves, chief executive officer of South County Economic Development Council. "It's now turned into a bonfire of opportunity."

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