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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 | Earlier this year the San Diego Association of Governments made a sobering assessment about the region’s economy.

“The San Diego region has been adding proportionately more jobs at the low end of the pay scale than jobs in the middle or at the high end of the pay scale.”

That finding is similar to those made in recent reports authored by the city of San Diego, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, the Center for Policy Initiatives, and the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

Each of these organizations concluded that San Diego needs to do more to retain and grow middle class jobs. While there is disagreement about the best approach to take, no one is disagreeing about the goal and its importance to the region’s overall quality of life.

This is not a challenge unique to San Diego.

The United States continues to transform itself from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. As that has happened, inequality has grown and middle class blue collar jobs created by America’s large manufactures have been difficult to replace.

But San Diego is more challenged than most. We have some great industrial companies but we have seen steady erosion in employment from the manufacturing sector.

Unlike cities such as Denver, Austin or the Northern Virginia area, we do not have the kind of concentration of white-collar government workers that in these communities comprises a big slice of their middle class.

While San Diego has a tremendous number of great small and middle sized entrepreneurial companies, it has not seen the emergence of many large, headquartered companies which often employ thousands of middle level managers. Add on top of this the region’s high cost of living and it is no wonder that many economists are worried about the region’s economic future.

The difficulty of this challenge and the additional handicaps that San Diego confronts are among the chief reasons that Proposition B seems, at the very least, premature, and at the worst misguided. The trade and logistic jobs at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal are precisely the kind of jobs that the region should be bending over backward to preserve. According to a study released last month by the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, the jobs directly associated with the two maritime terminals pay an average of $54,032, 28 percent more than the region’s median wage of $42,220. Some pay well in excess of $100,000 but do not require years of specialized higher education. They are the kind of job that helps families raise themselves into the middle class and provide the rung up on America’s economic ladder.

Proponents of Proposition B will proclaim that all this is beside the point — that the proposition does nothing to threaten maritime jobs at the port. Indeed, they have publicly argued that their initiative will help modernize the terminal and encourage even more cargo traffic at the facility.

Voters Need to Be Skeptical

First, the proponents have failed to present any evidence from trade and logistics experts that their proposed reconfiguration of Tenth Avenue is dramatically more efficient. In fact, the Pacific Maritime Association and Local 29 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose members have a direct stake in any policy that would increase terminal operations, have strongly opposed Proposition B.

Second, while the proponents have pointed to the initiative’s requirement that the, “specific priority and supportive uses selected for inclusion in the redevelopment project … will be determined through a collaborative and consultative process that includes participation by the public and private entities affected by redevelopment of the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal,” they have failed to adequately explain how this “stakeholder” process would actually work.

Who gets stakeholder status? Who decides disputes on membership to this group? What happens if the participants can’t reach agreement? What is the binding force of the recommendations that emerge from the process? If it is a process with real “teeth” as opposed to “just for show” than why are these questions left completely unanswered in the initiative’s text?

The initiative is also silent on the kind of infrastructure that will be needed to move tens of thousands of daily car trips to and from the redevelopment project. Does Caesar Chavez Boulevard have the capacity? If not, how would these trips be accommodated without harming the working waterfront?

Finally, and perhaps most telling, why did the proponents not try to reach out to the existing tenants and businesses operating at 10th Avenue? They should have welcomed a collaborative discussion about ideas that could have infused millions of dollars into upgrading the infrastructure at the terminal. Either those conversations never occurred or they proved fruitless. Both outcomes suggest that the proponents have not been able to convince those with daily operational experience at the terminal that it is possible to make a double deck work and actually create simultaneous wins for both commercial and industrial users.

Those still unresolved questions have led many, including this writer, to conclude that it would be challenging to move forward with a double deck in way that did not negatively impact maritime operations. Because of the value of these kinds of jobs to the region, that is just too great a risk to take.

San Diego has some great economic attributes. The combination of university research, entrepreneurial drive and creative synergies has given rise to some of America’s most dynamic companies and the region has been held up as a world renowned example of what can be done to spark a technology-driven economy. San Diego’s visitors industry is robustly growing. But a region that has been challenged in respect to the number of middle class jobs it creates and retains should not be threatening its working waterfront. By doing so, Proposition B threatens the region’s prosperity and competitiveness. For that reason, it should be rejected.

Erik Bruvold is the president and Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. You can email him at erikbruvold@sandiegoinstitute.com. The piece is part of a week’s worth of commentary for or against Proposition B and discussing the future of San Diego’s harbor. Join it here.

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