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Opportunity continues to blossom in South County

Like the wallflowers transformed into beauties on TV reality shows, South County is undergoing its own "extreme makeover."

The metamorphosis continues, but the results achieved so far are paying off. Today, the rapidly growing and changing area is garnering local and national attention as residents, visitors and businesses give South County a closer look.

"If you haven't been to South County lately, you don't know South County," said Cindy Gommper-Graves, executive director of the South County Economic Development Council (SCEDC).

"I invite people to come and see the dynamics that have occurred in this region."

Those who live in South County are finding fewer and fewer reasons to stray far from home. This may be especially true for residents of master-planned communities like Chula Vista's EastLake and Otay Ranch.

In addition to new homes that cater to tastes ranging from simple to lavish, they afford residents with a lifestyle that includes an abundance of amenities, including excellent schools, recreation opportunities, and neighborhood shopping and dining.

The area's ongoing growth has sparked the development of a number of shopping centers, giving eastern Chula Vista and other South County residents a host of new shopping, dining and entertainment options in their own backyard. Major retailers like Kohl's, Wal-Mart, Target and Lowe's have opened in the area in the past couple of years, and more new malls, as well as upscale restaurants, are in the works. By the end of 2005, South County should also have its own design center, featuring a variety of home furnishing and decorating showrooms, when EastLake Design District opens.

"There isn't anything like this in South County," said Stewart Keith, senior vice president of Flocke & Avoyer, leasing agent for the EastLake Design District. "There's an untapped market of 1.3 million people living south of I-8, especially with all the new homes being built in the area."

South County also boasts a number of noteworthy cultural and entertainment attractions, including Coors Amphitheater, the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the Chula Vista Nature Center, and Knott's Soak City U.S.A. And in the not too distant future, South County fans will have even more to brag about.

Both Chula Vista and National City, for example, are in the midst of revitalizing their urban cores. Ambitious redevelopment projects are either under way or in the planning pipeline in both cities. Ultimately, the goal is to turn these areas into lively communities that retain their unique personalities and history and promote economic growth by luring people to work, live and play in them.

"The revitalization of more established communities in cities like Chula Vista, National City, and Imperial Beach is very important for South County," Gommper-Graves said. "All of our cities are working hard to refurbish established neighborhoods. They are investing in these areas, not just ignoring them, to ensure they offer the same quality of life as newer developments do."

In National City, downtown business and property owners are taking some neighborhood revitalization matters into their own hands. They recently formed a non-profit Property Business Improvement District. By paying fees to help fund services like street cleaning and landscaping to make their neighborhood more attractive, they hope to follow in the footsteps of other areas with similar districts - including San Diego's Little Italy and Gaslamp Quarter - and create a thriving community. National City's Mile of Cars also has an improvement district, and businesses in the city's Plaza Boulevard Corridor may also form one.

Both National City and Chula Vista also have big plans in store for their waterfront areas. The goal is to transform them into destinations their citizens and visitors will embrace. Eventually, these prime locations on San Diego Bay will be the site of parks, hotels, shops, restaurants and more.

According to SCEDC's Gommper-Graves, both small and large companies find plenty to cheer about when doing business in South County. "The most important attraction for businesses is that South County is growing so fast," she stated. Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Center took this into consideration when it opened a facility in Otay Ranch in 2001 to complement its existing Chula Vista medical center. With 205 employees, many of whom live in Otay Ranch and other parts of South County, the Otay Ranch facility is one of Chula Vista's largest employers.

"With the tremendous amount of growth occurring in the South Bay, it was important for us to expand our services so that we could continue to provide great care for our patients and the community," said Donna Mills, Sharp Rees-Stealy administrator and CEO.

According to Gommper-Graves, South County's businesses like the area for a number of other reasons too. These include an appreciation for the area's cultural diversity, business-friendly local government, relatively affordable land available for development, and new infrastructures, like the partially completed Interstate-125.

The SCEDC also offers several types of loans for small and large businesses in the area. Other services, such as site location assistance and help advocating for more resources, are also available through the SCEDC.

Being close to the San Diego Port and the Mexican border are also big pluses for South County businesses. With the largest commercial land border port between California and Mexico, Otay Mesa plays an important role in attracting companies to the area and contributing to South County's economy. The community provides companies with access to world-class manufacturing and an inexpensive and skilled labor force. Otay Mesa is also gaining recognition for another valuable asset - large parcels of value-priced land available for industrial development.

Some of South County's largest companies are benefiting from the South Bay Enterprise Zone, a state-designed program. Created to promote business growth, the program provides new and established companies within the zone to leverage a variety of state tax advantages. After expanding to include Chula Vista in 2000, the South Bay Enterprise Zone proved instrumental in helping to prevent aerospace giant Goodrich from cutting local jobs. In addition to Goodrich, large companies already located in the South Bay Enterprise Zone include Delimex, Duke Energy, Honeywell, Howard Leight Industries, Matsushita/Panasonic, Martin Furniture, Raytheon, Sanyo, Smith-Corona Corp. and Sony.

Last spring, the South Bay Enterprise Zone further expanded to include 84-acres in National City. It now has a total of 7,094 acres of prime commercial and industrial land. Companies in National City that are eligible for zone incentives include car importer PASHA, custom signage and sales office interior designer Motivational Systems Inc., and yacht manufacturer Knight & Carver.

"We fought aggressively to help expand the Enterprise Zone to National City, not only because it offered economic incentives for us to continue to expand our operations in yacht repair and wind blades, but also because we firmly believe in the economic viability of National City's industrial waterfront," said Sam Brown, president and CEO of Knight & Carver. "We're 100 percent behind the mayor's efforts to re-vitalize this region in every way."

South County's EastLake Business Center is beginning to come into its own as a prime location for leading high-tech companies like Hitachi's North American Headquarters, DNP and Leviton. Whether South County becomes San Diego's next Sorrento Valley remains to be seen. But some South County supporters think it's likely the area will continue to attract more high-tech and biotech companies, bringing more lucrative jobs with them.

Gommper-Graves is among those who believe that South County has the potential to become a hub for high-tech and biotech companies in the next decade. She cited the availability of land and available and affordable - by California standards - housing as incentives to locate in the area. Another is the region's proximity to Mexico, especially as increased globalization is motivating more companies to explore the possibility of forging partnerships with other countries. Another strong lure for high-tech and biotech companies is the proposed University Park and Research Center. Plans call for the innovative four-year university to be located on a 1,500-acre site in Otay Ranch. In a unique partnership, public and private universities, along with prestigious research institutes and related businesses, will share the campus. Upon completion, the university would serve 15,000 students. A 150- acre business park is also planned for the campus, as are housing, retail stores, and possibly a hotel. Having such an educational and research center in South County would be a major coup in the eyes of many in the area who have longed for a four-year university to call their own.

"This project will have a huge financial impact on South County," said Denny Stone, director of economic development for the city of Chula Vista. "The response from educators, students, business leaders, and other community members has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic."

Like any region growing in leaps and bounds, South County has its challenges. The way Gommper-Graves sees it, South County must make sure it stays on track and manages its growth effectively.

"We're growing so fast, we need to make sure we have the type of growth we want and the infrastructure to support it to ensure economic prosperity," Gommper-Graves explained.

In addition, she believes another key challenge the region faces is making the border as secure as possible while simultaneously ensuring that cross-border commerce continues to flow smoothly.

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