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South County EDC looks to ease growing pains

Business and political leaders say South San Diego County is experiencing a boom right now, but if the sudden growth isn't harnessed, the area could bust.

From the rapidly developed Eastlake section of Chula Vista to the evolving industrial waterfront in National City, South San Diego County has seen a lot of change in recent years and experts expect it will see more this decade. Between now and the year 2030, the population will likely go up another 37 percent, according to San Diego Association of Governments Chief Economist Marney Cox.

At a South County Economic Development Council meeting on Friday, local leaders suggested improving border relations with Tijuana, more affordable housing, improved infrastructure and increased education will keep the region from suffering too many growing pains.

"Growing as a young kid here in this community, when you thought of the South County you didn't think of greatness," Assemblyman and former San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas said. "What's the future hold for the South Bay? I think it holds greatness."

Friday's meeting was attended not only by experts and leaders from San Diego, but also from Baja California, especially Tijuana.

The night before the conference, South County EDC officials met with representatives from similar groups in Tijuana and signed a pact promising "economic cooperation" and to work together with the Mexican border city. Much of the meeting was dedicated to that pledge.

Many speakers, including Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon and former California Gov. and current Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown spoke on the issue of economic cooperation between the two "sister cities," which are close geographically but separated by a heavily protected border.

U.S. Congressman Bob Filner suggested making "smart cards" available to people who make frequent border crossings, for work, to visit family or just go shopping. The cards would have personal information and allow those people to cross the border quickly without having to go through the lengthy searches visitors frequently have to endure when coming from Mexico into the United States.

Rohn suggested opening at least one more border crossing area, but getting it built much quicker than the proposed 15 years some say it will take. For people who have a two-hour commute to work now due to lengthy border crossings, 15 years is too long, Rohn said.

"I think if we keep on working together and we keep on giving solutions and we keep on thinking ahead of what's going to happen we will be able to solve the problem," said Rohn.

Brown said city, county and state governments ultimately cannot take care of immigration issues -- that lies with the federal government. Though Washington is concerned about terrorism and the border, Brown said the federal government must realize how much of the work force in areas like San Diego comes from immigrant labor and address the problem.

"The president of the United States and the president of Mexico need to sit down and actually do something about it," he said. "You can't have people in your country as outlaws that you're dependent on."

Another major concern at the meeting, however, was the internal development of housing and retail in South County.

Ian Gill, a principal with Highland Partnership, said for years central and northern San Diego County were always the focal points for developers, and when they filled up, developers moved to Riverside. Commutes from Riverside proved too much for most residents, however, which led developers to finally look toward South County, long regarded as an undesirable spot.

Now, Guy Assaro, senior vice president of McMillin Land Development, said South County is full of a young, educated work force that's attracting more business, and as a result, more housing. Houses that sold for $210,000 in 1996 are now selling for as much as $686,000.

"South County is the place to be," Assaro said.

As Douglas Wilson Cos.' President Douglas Wilson pointed out, however, much of the growth is causing fear among residents, something he said politicians especially must deal with. Local fears of overdevelopment, compounded with the high cost of construction, are the biggest obstacles developers in South County face, said Wayne Hahn, development director for Constellation Property.

John McCann, a Chula Vista councilman, said it's been important in his city to make sure infrastructures needs were taken care of before development was allowed.

Nick Inzunza, the mayor of National City, said the best way to alleviate citizens' fears of overdevelopment and help commercial enterprises at the same time is to develop a vision and gather consensus on how to work toward it. The main component of this, he said, is education.

"National City is one of the few cities in the entire county that has welcomed and is inviting high-rise development," Inzunza said. "What we've said is if you want smart growth and pedestrian-friendly areas and affordable housing," you need some high-rise development.

Leaders stressed more basic education as an important tool in shaping the future of South County as well. Urban areas like National City have poorer school systems and therefore a less skilled work force, according to Mary Wylie, dean of the School of Continuing Education, Economic and Workforce Development at Southwestern College.

Wylie said that while some areas like Chula Vista have educated young professionals, many other groups, particularly Hispanics, have struggled to get to higher education.

"San Diego County has seen rapid growth in high-tech service occupations," Wylie said. "The majority of new jobs require a higher skill level than currently possessed by the unemployed" in South County.

Wylie said more aggressive training and education programs are necessary if South County wants to create new jobs and see them go to current residents.

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