Thursday, October 13, 2005 | At first, “Enron by the Sea” was just a joke, a quirky phrase. Then the name stuck. Now it’s hard to read a story in the national press about the community formerly known as “America’s finest city” without San Diego’s new moniker being mentioned at least once.
San Diego’s reputation has been tarnished over the last year, there’s little doubt of that, and it is still drawing national attention. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a front page, double-header of articles critical of the city. On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an equally negative piece with the headline “Cloud Hangs Over Sunny San Diego.”
From a sinking bond rating to the negative media attention the city has received due to its fiscal and political scandals, experts say there hasn’t been much positive to say about San Diego.
The question then turns to the long-term effects of this negative press. What will the fallout be for business? For tourism? For the quality of life of San Diegans?
The Voice of San Diego posed these questions to representatives of San Diego’s business world and those tasked with maintaining and protecting the city’s image as a good place to visit and to invest in. Voice also questioned academics and experts about the effect of negative publicity on a city and its inhabitants’ financial and spiritual well-being.
One of this week’s Wall Street Journal stories examines the controversy surrounding San Diego’s multimillion dollar interest payments to investment behemoth Merrill Lynch & Co. Controversies such as this, the article asserts, “have become almost normal lately in the nation’s seventh-largest city, where a combination of financial disorder and political controversy has made it the butt of late-night talk-show jokes.”
Local media experts say the author who wrote that is not far off the mark.
“This is a city that is out of control, that’s how I think we’re being characterized,” said Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“I’m not sure they’re wrong,” he added.
Dr. Peter Andersen, professor of communications at the School of Communications at San Diego State University, agrees with Nelson.
“It’s an image of small-time governance,” he said, “not a very sophisticated group of leaders in charge of San Diego, that don’t understand things like the necessity to cut services, to raise taxes, to balance budgets and to follow the law and be squeaky-clean.”
This focus on the ineptitude of city officials and San Diego’s fiscal woes poses considerable concern for the city’s business leaders. They say the city’s reputation is being damaged by the media’s obsession with bad news. Such allegations might make good copy, they argue, but the implications for the local business environment are worrying.
“We do have concerns that businesses who were potentially looking to relocate to San Diego may reconsider based on the instability of the fiscal system here in San Diego,” said Mitch Mitchell, vice president of public policy and communications at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “You would never want to relocate a business to San Diego and, on arriving, be hit by major fee and tax increases that increase your costs of operation.”
Julie Meier Wright, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Council, a group tasked with promoting San Diego to businesses, echoes those thoughts.
“When we’re trying to put out positive messages,” she said, “we’re fighting these perceptions that this is a gang that can’t shoot straight.”
When companies see these problems with city government, explained Meier Wright, they become concerned that the city’s problems will eventually end up being solved on the back of local businesses.
But Bill Geppert, vice president and general manager of Cox Communications in San Diego, thinks any misgivings about San Diego’s future business environment are over-hyped.
Geppert said he rarely hears any concerns about City Hall as he goes about his day-to-day business. The stories plastered across the pages of the major broadsheets might make for good conversation, he said, but they’re nothing to really worry about.
“Communities often go through a difficult time. This is our difficult time,” said Geppert. “I think the better, more interesting part of this is where do we come out, how do we recover?”
Besides, Geppert and others believe San Diego could be the first in a whole line of troubled cities. He thinks there are many other cities out there hiding their financial problems. Eventually, said Geppert, attention will be focused elsewhere and San Diego’s woes will fade into the distance as the city solves its problems and other cities begin to wash their own dirty laundry in public.
Geppert doesn’t think that San Diego’s eventual recovery is likely to create as many headlines as the last year or so, however.
“I doubt that Jay Leno will be telling jokes about it,” he said. “But oftentimes people remember the long-haul, how you recover from something, not the specifics of what happened.”
That point is debatable, according to other experts.
The long-term effects of San Diego’s budget crisis, including the under-funding of crucial services, are, in time, likely to create their own headlines, argued Dr. Andersen of SDSU.
“There are some very, very real issues that are true crazies here,” said Andersen. “We’re the most dangerously under-policed city in America. All we need is terrorism, civil insurrection, and our police force, in no man or shape or form, can handle it.”
But if such doomsdays are looming, San Diego’s tourists haven’t heard about them.
San Diego’s recent bad publicity hasn’t had much of an impact on the number of people visiting the city, according to Sal Giametta, vice president of community relations at the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“People don’t decide not to visit a very popular tourist destination because the local government may be experiencing difficulties,” said Giamatta. “People visit a destination because there are lots of wonderful things to see and do there.”
Andersen puts it another way.
“Will people stop coming to the beach because the city has got political crises? I doubt it,” he said. “Will conventions say ‘Oh, I don’t want to come to San Diego, that’s a corrupt political environment,’ or ‘Their budget is severely out of balance,’? I don’t think that would have any bearing.”
But aside from tourists and the business community, what about the everyday citizens of San Diego?
Apart from being the butt of a few snide jokes made by friends from out-of-town, what fallout is there for the average San Diegan as a result of the recent swath of negative publicity surrounding their home city?
Andersen said many San Diegans are likely to see a little negative publicity as not necessarily a bad thing. With their city’s services stretched to the breaking point by an ever-expanding population, Andersen said few locals would be concerned that readers in Washington or the Midwest are being put off moving to San Diego.
“The amount of open space has dwindled to a bare minimum,” he said. “So those people like the Chamber of Commerce who continue to argue that we have to bring more businesses and we have to grow, there’s an equally big contingent in San Diego that says ‘No, that’s not what we want to do.”
For that group, a little bad publicity might be a small price to pay.
Please contact Will Carless directly at