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Friday, July 28, 2006 | The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors narrowly agreed to endorse the November airport initiative Thursday, giving the Miramar proposal a vital political boost that’s expected to jumpstart the business community’s financial support.

The 19-18 vote came as a Qualcomm vice president wrote the chamber suggesting the Sorrento Valley-based wireless communication giant might leave San Diego if a joint-use Miramar airport is built because it could restrict plans to expand the company’s campus.

Jim Callaghan, Qualcomm’s vice president of real estate and facilities, said plans for the Miramar airport create “an uncertainty for future growth planning that no company likes to face. … Therefore, we may be forced to consider relocating outside Sorrento Valley, with the potential for relocating outside of the City of San Diego.”

Qualcomm, one of three Fortune 500 companies in San Diego, sits on the outer edge of Miramar’s accident zone – the area most likely to see plane crashes. Under the airport authority’s now-abandoned joint-use plan, that zone would’ve grown more than 4,000 acres and could have affected zoning regulations.

Opponents of the airport initiative could get a boost from the Qualcomm letter, which was sent Wednesday to Nikki Clay, chairwoman of the chamber’s board of directors. But airport supporters said they didn’t believe the letter accurately represented Qualcomm’s position on the airport. A Qualcomm spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

Chamber officials downplayed the letter, saying it was shared with board members and given its due as one point of view – not the only one. Clay said it was “too bad” that Qualcomm sent the letter instead of its voting board member.

John Chalker, president of ASAP21, a pro-new airport group formed three years ago by the chamber, acknowledged that concerns over land-use restrictions boosted airport opposition among the chamber’s directors.

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Chairman Joe Craver has met with Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs to discuss land-use issues and said he did not sense resistance. Craver said Miramar’s accident-prone areas would shrink if the Marines’ jet fighters were replaced with commercial aircraft.

The Qualcomm letter and the close vote continue to reflect the Miramar proposal’s divisiveness in a region where defense is the second-largest industry. On one side, supporters say a new airport with excess passenger capacity is vital to keep the region’s economy growing. On the other side, businesses reliant on the military for their livelihood oppose any plan that could reduce the Marines’ local presence.

“Very reasonable people, very smart people make compelling arguments on both sides of this,” said Ben Haddad, chairman of the chamber’s public policy committee. “That’s why it’s been so close. It’s a tough call.”

The chamber’s support had appeared shaky after its public policy committee voted July 11 to oppose the Miramar plan. That 9-4 vote fueled a concerted behind-the-scenes effort by both sides to swing the 51-member chamber board’s vote.

Airport supporters were clearly relieved by the decision. The chamber is the first major endorsement for the airport plan, which has struggled to find any support from local politicians.

“Our opponents have tried and have been successful in polarizing this issue,” Craver said. “But still for the chamber to endorse our ballot language – in my mind – sends a very strong signal.”

The vote’s narrow margin surprised airport observers on both sides and left enough room for opponents to claim a small victory.

Chamber member Bryan Min, president and CEO of Epsilon Systems Solutions Inc., a Mission Valley-based defense contracting company, voted against the endorsement. He hailed the result as a “moral victory.”

“The bottom line, when you get down to it,” Min said of the airport proposal, “it’s us telling the military to take a hike. They (the airport authority) do not want a dialogue, they want a concession.”

But John Dadian, chief strategist to Save our Military – No on Miramar, a ballot opponent, said the chamber’s endorsement was a blow regardless of how close it was.

“The vote is the vote, and they won this battle,” Dadian said. “It makes our fight that much tougher.”

The vote was taken by paper ballot – a secret vote – an uncommon practice at the chamber. Chamber officials did not know the last time a secret vote, not a hand vote, was conducted. Clay said it was the fairest way to conduct the controversial vote.

“Peer pressure is not restricted to the playground at school,” said Scott Alevy, the chamber’s vice president of public policy and communication. “You’re always conscious of who’s sitting next to you.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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