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The two most vocal parties in San Diego’s airport debate have boiled down the discussion to one question: Should we make do at Lindbergh Field or use a military base for a new airport?

But some observers say the underlying debate about the airport authority’s site-selection process is broader and has been obscured by squabbles over military bases’ availability.

Instead, they say, San Diegans should ask a larger question: What do residents want this region to be when it grows up?

“It’s a broader debate about San Diego’s future,” said Steve Erie, director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at the University of California, San Diego. “Are we an overgrown suburb or are we a major American city? I think the jury’s still out.”

In Denver, the only major city in the United States to build an international airport in the last 30 years, economic development and job opportunities were at the heart of the debate. A new airport was just one piece of a larger vision.

Steve Peace, the former state senator who drafted the legislation that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, recently said voters may use their ballots to voice opinions about how San Diego should grow. Others share his perspective.

“Whatever way we vote on the airport is going to shape the future of the city and the region,” said Michael J. Stepner, an architecture and urban design professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design and the city of San Diego’s former acting planning director.

“That is a very important question that will be raised. If we do this, will we grow in a way we don’t like? That all has to be vetted as part of this process. Otherwise we’ll be bogged down and never make a decision.”

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is drawing close to making its decision on an airport site, culminating the search underway since 2003. The authority expects to pick a site in early June to address projections that Lindbergh Field will reach its 24 million passenger capacity sometime after 2015. Voters will go to the polls Nov. 7 to approve or reject the choice.

A new airport with dual runways would increase San Diego’s capacity and could also open up foreign markets. The massive planes that make trans-Pacific flights currently can’t fly fully loaded out of Lindbergh, because its sole runway is too short.

Authority members, who are divided over whether to consider military bases for a new airport, are similarly split over the broader characterization of the debate.

Board member Xema Jacobson, who opposes the study of military sites, said she thinks November’s vote centers on “what we want San Diego County to be, what we want our region to be. I really truly believe it’s a discussion that each community will have about what they want their community to be.”

Board member William D. Lynch disputed that. Lynch, who has supported the study of military sites, said a new airport is needed to accommodate the needs of San Diego’s growing population. That growth doesn’t come from an influx of people moving here, he said, but from the existing population’s birth rate. Forecasts show a million more residents living in San Diego County by 2030.

“Do you believe we’d have less people if we put one lane up [Interstate] 5?” Lynch asked. “We’re just simply talking about indigenous growth. You either provide for this stuff or you don’t. It’s a quality-of-life issue. It’s a transportation issue.”

Characterizing the broader debate as being about residents’ quality of life – focusing on concerns such as longer airport ticket counter lines and more expensive fares – will make the multi-billion-dollar project a tough sell for proponents, said Erie, the UCSD professor.

If San Diego County had high unemployment rates and low job growth, Erie said, the argument for a new airport would be easier to make. But San Diego’s unemployment rate in March 2006 was almost a full percentage point below the national average. Projections show job growth keeping pace with the burgeoning population through 2030.

“What building an airport would do would be to move us on a new growth trajectory,” Erie said. “More higher wage jobs than what we’ve got. But that’s not the way the issue is being framed in this town.”

Politicians did successfully frame it that way in Denver. In the late 1980s, the Colorado city was suffering through an economic slowdown. Stapleton International Airport, the city’s major transportation hub, was growing increasingly constrained. Job growth and economic development were key arguments for building the new $5 billion airport, which opened in 1995.

“We recognized, that because we are landlocked, that transportation was the critical piece of the basic economic growth of the region,” said Stephanie Foote, a former Denver City Councilwoman and deputy mayor who helped oversee the airport’s construction.

Foote said she worked on the airport project with one goal in mind: Creating a city that would have enough job opportunities for her two children, who were then toddlers.

Those opportunities have been created in the 11 years since Denver International Airport opened, Foote said. The city has seen “huge development,” she said, with residents flocking to new homes built on the old Stapleton site.

“It fueled growth in areas that weren’t growing,” said Wellington Webb, Denver’s mayor from 1991 to 2003. “Growth was static, and in some cases they were losing population. The airport site location proved to be a very important economic indicator.”

The airport was just one part of Denver’s 1990s renaissance. Major League Baseball came to the city. New football and baseball stadiums were built. Denver’s population has grown nearly 20 percent since the city decided to build a new airport.

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña is credited as being the champion for the development of the city’s airport. When Peña spoke in San Diego in 2004, he urged business leaders and politicians to create a vision for the region’s future. Use a new airport, Peña said, as a way to achieve that vision.

“When you form a position,” Peña was quoted as saying in The Daily Transcript, “and when you achieve a public compromise, sites will sort of play out.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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