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San Diego: A City of Boosters

October 6, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Recently, after my last visit in the late 1990s (for a conference) I stayed for a few days for a business trip (again, a conference) at a resort hotel in San Diego (it was much cooler than Maui, especially at night, and I regretted not bringing a thicker sweater – after a while on Maui, you forget the climates of other places).

At first I felt like a prisoner, since the hotel was isolated (this geographic placing also works to increase sales for certain Hawai'i hotels, too) and I was restricted to eating at the hotel waterfront restaurant, and ate the same salty French fries for lunch and dinner in one day.

I did get out a bit, and saw the Gas Lamp district, a gentrified “historical” area of “old” San Diego, with a train terminal and conference hotels, plus acres of restaurants and bars. In some ways, San Diego resembles Honolulu (Honolulu has 950,000 residents and San Diego City has 1.3 million but can draw upon a greater population northwards along the I-5 freeway): a port city with a mild climate, beaches, surfing, a vibrant tourism industry, and a heavy military presence, dating before World War II.

Historically, Hawai'i has been searching for a diversified economic base since the 1978 Hawai'i Chamber of Business launched a campaign to attract U.S. multinationals to relocate Asia-Pacific headquarters to Honolulu (with limited success, but surprising there were a couple of takers).

The San Diego economic campaign was triggered by San Diego’s city leadership who were dissatisfied with the heavy dependence on military spending and limited tourism (this was way before Sea World and other world-class tourist destinations).

Since the 1980s, San Diego invested in business incentive and campaigns to attract high tech companies, and Qualcomm was the first big successful telecoms firm (formerly Linkabit) founded by two M.I.T. graduates who were drawn to the warm weather across the continent. Then came Kyocera, Nokia, Sony, LG, many software firms, and thriving new biotech start-ups, spun-off from research at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla and several local universities (University of California at San Diego, San Diego State University, and University of San Diego).

The impetus for San Diego’s “revival” can be traced to Mayor Pete Wilson (who also was elected U.S. Senator and Governor of California), who served three terms starting at the economic “low point” in 1971. Over a decade, Mayor Wilson “restructured the (San Diego) City Council, reorganized the planning and civil service commissions, instituted campaign finance reform, and launched the redevelopment of Downtown San Diego” . . . and . . .”helped to keep baseball's Padres in San Diego, helping to persuade local millionaire Ray Kroc to buy the team.”

I wrote on a simple, direct clever business promotion utilizing San Diego taxi drivers by the San Diego economic development office back in the 1980s:

See Star-Advertiser Opinion-Editorial: Train Cab Drivers Can Be Hawai'i Ambassadors During APEC Summit

Simply, business people trust cab drivers, strangely enough, to give them the current “pulse” of a city – if the drivers complain or are depressed, the economy’s not moving, and firms think twice about moving to the city and investing in new jobs. If cab drivers are upbeat, you start doing more research, and investment may flow in, reviving a city.

Tourists enjoying Sea World, San Diego Zoo or the bustling downtown area today are surprised to be told that San Diego into the 1980s was seen as a backwater, an undeveloped “town” dominated by tuna packing canneries and a declining business sector – in contrast to San Francisco’s (Silicon Valley/high tech, Napa wine, restaurants, poetry) and Los Angeles’ (Hollywood/movies, Disneyland/Universal Studies theme parks, music, Rodeo Drive tourism) economic and cultural growth.

San Diego has had great success in playing “catch-up” during the past two decades and there is a “booster” spirit in the metropolitan center just across from the Mexican border.

One interesting phenomenon that helped the San Diego economy was the passing of “maquiladora” tax-free regulations, where firms launched manufacturing plants “straddling” the Mexican and U.S. borders in “Foreign Trade Zones”, and when the finished products, like televisions or refrigerators, are exported into the U.S., there are no duties levied on the items – naturally, a big draw to compete in a cut-throat discount electronics market.

More than one million Mexicans now have high-paying manufacturing jobs in these plants, and sparked an economic boom in northern Mexico. Many U.S., European and Japanese firms in the 1990s into the 2000s took advantage of the lower labor costs in Mexico. Simultaneously, there was also a sharp rise in new white-collar and managerial jobs in the Greater San Diego region (many American citizens cross the Mexican border daily to work – in a reverse job-hunt journey). *

A successful example of a business-government partnership resulted in the revival of the Gas Lamp District, now a major tourism draw, with dozens of "fusion" restaurants, clubs, shops, and theaters in quaint, historical buildings, reminiscent of the revival of the Georgetown district in Washington, D.C. It is truly a fun, vibrant place.

On both my cab rides to and from the San Diego Airport (now very up-to-date, but never moved from its city-center location and for many years there had been talk of a bigger airport in the desert – San Diego perhaps is one of the few large American cities with a one-runway airport, a non-hub, and only recently has direct flights from London and Tokyo) I had taxi cabdrivers from Eritrea and Somalia, respectively.

The first cab was a bright red new Prius and the young driver had lived in the U.S. for over 23 years and spoke impeccable English. The second driver had been in San Diego for seven years, and had left Somalia due to the “troubles”, then Uganda, and then found his home in what he called a “nice city” for his future. Over 6,000 Somalis live in Greater San Diego, he said, and around 70,000 in total in the U.S.

So the positive, upbeat , inclusive sunny San Diego business boosterism continues, three decades after Mayor Wilson and the desperate search for business growth and new jobs for San Diego (without turning to gaming and still with military spending, but not as dominant in the San Diego economy as compared to 50 years ago).

Lastly, in a quiet way (I don’t think anybody made a fuss in the media anywhere, since I only read about it this week), after the tumult of allegations of sexual harassment by the former San Diego mayor during this summer, San Diego has an interim mayor who is gay, the second after Houston (in Texas, interestingly enough):

San Diego to Become the Nation’s Second Largest City with Openly Gay Mayor

*Interestingly, the local association devoted to Japanese culture and business is named “The Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana”. Many Japanese expatriate managers and their families live in San Diego, and their presence revived excellent Japanese restaurants. Historically, San Diego had a Japanese population linked to the fishing/tuna industry and farming in the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II internment, the Nikkei community had a revival back in San Diego, and still exists today.


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Yes, there are Gas Lamps in the Gas Lamp District.