Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007 | San Diego is a community of diverse business interests, ranging from the hub of biotechnology companies in Torrey Pines to the shipbuilders of Barrio Logan and the avocado, flower and tomato growers of North County.

But for Reuben Barrales, one sector of the local economy that he will champion as the incoming president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce excites him the most: Mexican food.

“Carne asada fries? No, I haven’t tried that yet,” said Barrales, who took over operations at chamber, one of the region’s most influential business advocacy groups, this month.

The regional delicacy is on the to-do list for Barrales, as is transforming San Diego into the gateway he envisions.

Before coming to San Diego, Barrales was a business executive, Bay Area county supervisor and an aide to President George W. Bush. We sat down with Barrales recently to discuss his impressions of the job.

What’s your impression of San Diego’s business climate coming into the job?

I think it’s good. I think San Diego’s in an undervalued market in many ways. Obviously housing is expensive. California, in general, has a high cost of doing business. But San Diego is an incredible market that is well-positioned in the early part of this century, moving forward, in terms of domestic and international trade, in terms of quality of life in a growing economic region. If we do things well, it will remain a great place to live and a great place to do business.

You mentioned the cost of doing business in California, which people often describe as being hefty. But San Diego — when compared to other major cities — has lower business fees and businesses have paid less than their fair share in the past for water and sewer costs. Given the city’s financial crunch, proposals to raise those costs may come up. What does it take to build the support for tax or fee hike, should it come up?

I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t had the chance to start yet. But the challenge is that you want to make sure — like in any transaction — that you get value for the services provided. Obviously the city government, the county government, have a public responsibility, but part of that is to make sure that they are able to provide the services that they provide at a fair and reasonable cost to private citizens, homeowners, businesses and the like.

The chamber needs to be involved in those conversations. We want a strong city. We want a county, a region that is strong so that we can provide the infrastructure — whether it’s water, sewer, transportation … police and fire protection. But we can’t afford it to be a burden on businesses, on small businesses, on the entrepreneur. We want to make sure that San Diego remains an environment that is conducive to investment, growth, and creating good jobs.

We’re all aware of San Diego’s financial problems here in the city, but have they resonated abroad?

I think so. Some of the media attention has come together in relation to some of the criminal investigations, the pension issues, the last mayor’s race. … I think San Diego has raised its profile somewhat. But if I have to tell you, colleagues in Washington and around the country — when I tell them that I’m coming to San Diego — people still think of it as “America’s Finest City.” They understand that there are many challenges to face, but it has so many assets.

One of the assets that it has right now is a mayor that understands the balance of providing these public services and the need to keep a healthy business environment.

And one of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ talking points when he campaigned in 2005 was that he would be going to Washington and Sacramento to meet with the leaders to talk about the city in hopes of raising our visibility. Do you think that’s happened?

The short answer is yes, he’s done that. People that have met him in Washington — and as I understand it, Sacramento — understand that he is serious about solving the problems. … He is a national figure, running the eighth largest city in the country.

But one of the things that has impressed me the most with Mayor Sanders is that he has taken the opportunity to go to Sacramento and to Washington, D.C. to deal with the critical issues, like Homeland Security funding, issues related to the border, and others. He’s been invited a number of times to Washington and has declined trips because at those particular times he was more focused on solving problems here in San Diego. To me, that’s the sign of a leader who is serious about solving problems.

Since you have a background in intergovernmental affairs, which is the role you held at the White House, how can the governments here improve its showing in that arena?

I think the formula is similar for most cities and regions. Part of the challenge, as I’ve seen, being a local elected official myself and in my role at the White House, especially for California regions, or the California cities, is having a presence in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C. In many ways, California is more than 3,000 miles away from D.C. California is incredible in its scope, in its diversity, in its economy. Quite frankly, many of our elected leaders who are further away, especially those back East, may not appreciate the challenges, the size of a city like San Diego. So it’s important to build those relationships.

Here’s the key, from my perspective: It has to be a public-private partnership. It needs to be a coalition of the business community and the public sector leaders together to work with our members of Congress, our senators, the administration … the most effective regions I’ve seen are those that work together …

At the public announcement of your hiring, you talked about San Diego being a gateway. Can you elaborate on what that means?

San Diego has been referred to economically and politically as a cul-de-sac. I love cul-de-sacs, I’ve lived on cul-de-sacs, they are great places to live.

San Diego, in my mind, is more of a gateway … to Mexico, to the rest of Latin America, a gateway to the Pacific Rim. Those are kind of the geographic and international trade components. It also is a gateway to the 21st century, in terms of biotech, in terms of its institutions of higher learning, in terms of dealing with the infrastructure challenges we’re facing. San Diego has the potential of being a gateway for how to solve and address these problems.

To come back to biotech, San Diego is recognized as an important center for biotechnology research and investment, and we’re facing some challenges there in how we retain talent and attract talent to the workforce. It goes back to my thinking of San Diego being undervalued. It’s an incredible place to live, it’s an incredible place to do business. I hope the chamber can be a partner in keeping it a wonderful place …

Seeing that this is a gateway, does that mean that the region should concentrate on building up its port at the expense of its potential for tourism along the bay front, or when finding another airport solution when that might jeopardize the military’s presence here?

I don’t see the tradeoffs, necessarily. Yes, we should see about increasing the capacity for the ports. I’m not sure what that means today in terms of increasing the footprint or increasing technology to move cargo more efficiently, but San Diego has an opportunity to take advantage of growing international trade and be a more significant port. I think we need to do an even better job in terms of tourism [by] more effectively and efficiently moving tourists and residents and employees alike around the region. That means more focus on infrastructure, reducing traffic, coming up with solutions in terms of mass transit and moving vehicles on our freeways.

So, I don’t see those necessarily as tradeoffs. I’m someone who is coming into the region appreciating our quality of life here, appreciating the environment. Business people are people who live here too, so we want to keep the environment and the economy going strong.

Much has been debated, in the last year especially, about immigration — an issue that significantly impacts our region. What would a good immigration policy entail?

A good immigration policy has to be comprehensive. It has to address the issue of security along the border. We need to focus on the use of technology to help secure the border.

We also, at the same time, need to make sure we encourage trade between Mexico and the rest of Latin America and the United States. We need to allow the flow of goods and need to allow the flow of capital across the border … Security is number one, but you also need to make sure that business ties need to be strengthened across the border.

San Diego, during the postwar years, built up into a military town. Does that label still stick, and if so, for how long?

The military’s presence has been major part of the strong economy of San Diego, so hopefully, it will serve the national interests and economic interests to keep the military here. I think you’ll see the chamber as a strong partner with the military here in the region.

Is there a business sector that you would say is the future of San Diego?

I don’t know what the future is, I just know that biotechnology [is part of the future]. I think tourism will remain strong, will be an important part of it. International trade will be a larger part of San Diego’s future.

Our challenge is to keep the business climate here one that will attract both the investment and the talented workforce.

You have been an elected official, you’ve worked in government. Which one is more challenging?

Oh gosh, they’re both challenging. … What I like to do is be involved in public policy. My DNA is programmed to support the interests of small businesses and focused on a healthy business climate.

What are you most looking forward to in San Diego?

I’m excited about coming to San Diego, because it’s such a wonderful place to live. It’s a large city in many ways with a small town feeling to it. People know each other, people care about the community. I’m excited to be an important part of such a dynamic city.

I love the coast, the beaches, the water. I love the mountains. There’s so much about the city that I enjoy, and the Mexican food isn’t bad either.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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