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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 | As a native San Diegan that has seen our region struggle over the years to secure its regional economic competitiveness, the Navy’s current position disregarding a joint use airport option concerns me deeply. As nostalgic as I would like to be about the past, we are no longer solely a Navy town and can ill afford to have the Pentagon dictate all the shots about San Diego’s economic future.
Make no mistake, San Diego needs an airport if our region wishes to accommodate our future growth or jobs and economic opportunities will simply slip away and go elsewhere.
Fourteen years ago, I wrote a column that appeared in The San Diego Union entitled “Lessons From Brownsville: Will History Repeat itself in San Diego?” (San Diego Union, Insight Section, 12/6/92, page C1). I re-read that op-ed recently and the applicable lessons are just as relevant today – in fact, even more so. The op-ed recounted the strategic error made in the early 1940’s by the Brownsville (Texas) City Council to limit the length of the runway at their municipal airport in a vain effort to preserve their community’s quality of life. To the air carriers that used Brownsville as their regional hub – PanAm, Braniff, Eastern and the U.S. Postal Service- the expanded runway was seen as mission critical to accommodate the coming fleet of longer-range airplanes.
Life gives us strategic windows of opportunities. If they are not taken, those opportunities simply go elsewhere. That is the lesson from Brownsville.
In its heyday, back in the early 1930s, Brownsville had a population of 25,000 and was considered one of the most prosperous emerging cities in the Southwest, thanks in part, to its airport. It served as Pan Am Airways’ regional headquarters and was the locale for its pilot training center and maintenance operations providing a strong, stable employment base.
Back then, Brownsville’s geographic location on the border was seen as so strategic and vital to PanAm’s future that the company’s founders even provided early financial support for Pan American University which is now part of the University of Texas system. Today, Brownsville’s population sits at over 160,000 yet it has few high paying jobs, a sagging per capita income and the community struggles with the nation’s highest poverty rate (36 percent) for a city over 100,000 in population.
Where did Brownsville’s opportunities go? They went to a little place called Houston that began lobbying Pan Am for its business after World War II and with their departure the other carriers followed suit. As Bruce Akin, former Director of Brownsville Historical Association once told me, “we in Brownsville have excellent hindsight but absolutely no vision and, as you can see, we’ve paid dearly for being this way.”
The writing is on the wall. Today, San Diego’s competition is not just regional (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Bay Area) but is of a global scale. To remain economically competitive and relevant we need the basic infrastructure to attract and retain industry as well as the best and the brightest to spur expanded growth and innovation. Airports are one of those essential building blocks that are absolutely vital to any region’s future economic growth, especially in today’s borderless world with expanding globalization, cross-border trade and the demands for increased international mobility.
Airport and aviation planning experts tell me that to maximize the economic potential of any new international airport as well as to commit the airlines to help finance its cost through landing fees, such a facility must lie within a 45 minute drive for passengers and be located in a metropolitan region that has the potential to pull or capture at least 4.5 to 5 million people from its own community or surrounding areas. An International Airport at Miramar makes sense today, given given the growing constraint on LAX and the fact that such a facility could draw passengers from Orange, Southern Riverside Counties and even Tijuana, when there are no unreasonable border delays.
Ironically, had Congressman “Top Gun” been caught with his hand in the cookie jar in the early 90’s, perhaps this community would not have lobbied the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) so hard to keep Miramar Naval Air Station open and we just might have had an international airport there today instead of El Toro’s helicopters. Here, another key lesson from Brownsville is that our future economic prospects are only as good as the quality, integrity, vision and leadership of those we elect to represent us and, for better or for worse, we must live with the consequences of their decisions for many years to come.
Perhaps deep down inside many of us dream for those sleepy days when San Diego’s two major employers were the Navy and tourism. I don’t. As much as I treasure those days as a kid when San Diego’s population was a mere 425,000, Mission Valley was just cow pastures and it was easy to get parking at La Jolla Shores, I know deep down inside that if my children are to have any prospect of a future here, steps must be taken now to position our region for future economic expansion and growth or we risk the same fate of Brownsville.
Like Brownsville, we in San Diego run the risk of not just losing strategic industries (biotech, telecom, electronics) but we could also face an erosion of our per capita income and quality of life. In a few years time, the per capita differential between San Diego and Tijuana may decline from where it is today becoming more in line with other U.S. border cities. Please refer to accompanying table.
That may or may not be a bad thing. It all depends on what sort of economic future we want for our children and grandchildren. That choice is ours as informed citizens and voters to make.
To those that argue that San Diego is fine just like it is now with its downtown airport, we must all remember that we do not live in a bubble nor can we dictate the rules of today’s fast changing world. What happened to Brownsville’s own downtown airport is a harbinger of things to come for our region if we fail to take action and keep our blinders on. Either we adapt or we just simply become irrelevant – regional economic dodo birds, just like Brownsville.
I have nothing against beautiful South Padre Island, Brownville’s seaside tourist destination, but the numbers speak for themselves – the regional economic impact of its own hotel and hospitality industry pails in comparison to that of San Diego’s. The University of Texas-Pan American is a wonderful school but it is not UCSD. In San Diego, Mexico’s border-based maquiladora industry is not a mainstay of our economy as it now is for Brownsville, it is merely a compliment to our diversified regional economy. Let’s keep it that way.
As we sit atop of all those ill-fated airport feasibility studies that keep piling up year after year contemplating San Diego’s future airport options, we need to ask ourselves the tough question of how badly our region should fight and defend our own strategic economic interests. As vital as the military is to our regional economy, San Diego should not be expected to disproportionately shoulder America’s defense and military readiness needs. Instead, we should share this obligation with other metropolitan regions around the country that have existing military installations so we don’t put our own economic security at risk.
If we allow the status quo to prevail, as may well occur, we have only ourselves to blame. While we will have a strong military presence all around us (Camp Pendleton, Miramar, North Island), their collective fire power will do little to protect our community from the growing economic stagnation that may materialize if key companies leave for greener pastures due to our inability to resolve the airport issue.
Absent our region’s available military options for joint use commercial aviation, the San Diego’s Regional Airport Authority might need to seriously consider ways to improve transportation linkages between Lindbergh Field and Tijuana’s Rodriquez Field including the possibility of a future cross-border terminal at Otay Mesa. The Authority might lose some direct control of air operations but at least our region will have yet another option, albeit across the border in Mexico for expanded regional and international air travel that now doesn’t appear to exist. San Diego must also accept that working together with Tijuana might be our region’s last and only hope of improved air service if the military’s top brass insist on digging in their heels.
The notion of a cross-border terminal at Otay Mesa or a binational regional airport authority overseeing enhanced Lindbergh Field-Rodriguez Field connections via improved rail or trolley connections would not be out of the realm of possibility nor would it be unprecedented. Geneva’s international airport, after all, sits right on an international border as well and some of its facilities, including its runway, are, in fact, not in Switzerland but in France. Having flown into that airport myself, I can personally attest to the fact that their transportation linkages are excellent with the airport railway station located a mere 300 meters from the airport departure/arrivals lounge offering direct connections to destinations within Switzerland and Europe including the TGV.
In the end, the key question comes down to this, what type of economic future does San Diego wish for? Does San Diego want to continue to grow and evolve as a center for tech innovation or do we want to revert to becoming simply the home of the Pacific Fleet and the San Diego Zoo but with more people, increased congestion, a lower per capita income and less of a tax base to pay for our future crumbling infrastructure? If one thinks that economic stagnation cannot happen here in America’s Finest City, one needs only to be reminded of the once promising economy of Brownsville, which today struggles to attract and retain quality businesses and now dubs itself the city “on the border and by the sea.”
The author is President and CEO of the San Diego based, International Community Foundation and during this tenure with the U.S. EPA, served as the agency’s representative on the Federal Inter-Agency Working Group evaluating San Diego’s past proposal for a binational airport. A resident of Torrey Hills, Kiy lives under the Miramar flight path. Agree? Disagree? Write a letter to the editor.