Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009 | There’s a certain skill needed to control 2,500 acres of the region’s most precious land along San Diego Bay, as the seven commissioners of the Unified Port of San Diego do.

You must weigh the interests of five cities, developers, environmentalists, public space advocates, shipping and tourism. You will influence half of the four major building projects vital to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and the future of the most important development in Chula Vista. Also, you’re responsible for 185 million bananas entering the United States each month through San Diego’s Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.

In short, the Port Commission encourages dealmakers. By his own admission, and by everyone else’s, Port Commission Chairman Steve Cushman is a consummate one.

“I love to work with our staff to make deals,” Cushman said. “That’s what Steve Cushman loves to do.”

The retired auto dealer and longtime power broker’s tenure began in 1999, and has included winning a rare third appointment from the San Diego City Council in 2007. San Diego appoints three commissioners to the board with the cities of Coronado, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and National City appointing one each.

Cushman’s reign is set to end in January 2011 when he’s termed out of office. His departure will come with others. By the time Cushman and termed-out Imperial Beach commissioner Michael Bixler leave only two commissioners — San Diego’s Scott Peters and National City’s Robert “Dukie” Valderrama — could remain from the board’s January 2009 roster.

Already, new blood is starting to flow. San Diego appointed attorney Lee Burdick in June, Chula Vista is set to name a representative following a forced resignation and interim commissioner. Coronado is looking for a replacement for Robert “Rocky” Spane who’s termed out in January.

Priorities and Personalities

Everyone has different ideas for what the Port Commission should do with its time and $140 million budget.

Though she believes the Port has improved its record, Diane Takvorian, head of the Environmental Health Coalition and longtime port observer, thinks environmental issues should be as important as economic ones.

“I think environmental interests have always played second fiddle to economic interests,” said Takvorian, who had a failed bid for a commission seat earlier this summer.

Public access to the bay, and public input, should receive more emphasis as controversy over the $30 million first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan shows, said Diane Coombs, a board member of planning and Port watchdog group Citizens Coordinate For Century 3.

The California Coastal Commission and a lawsuit have challenged the disappearance of an oval park that was on the North Embarcadero project’s renderings, but later removed. The plan faces a new hearing before the Coastal Commission likely in February, according to Cushman, who says the Port is working to resolve the Coastal Commission’s issues.

“I think the Port sometimes loses sight of the fact that they’re not there to build a wall of money-making projects,” Coombs said.

Then there’s a strong push for the Port to focus on revenue. The $1 billion San Diego Convention Center expansion needs funding and the Port, which owns the Convention Center land, paid to build the Convention Center and helped pay for an initial expansion, has been targeted to help pay. The Port contends it has no money, but not everyone believes it. San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio called out the Port’s need to contribute in a June memo.

Navigating these conflicting priorities is what someone like Cushman does. His departure will leave a hole.

“I’m not sure that one person is going to fill that vacuum,” said Peters, a former San Diego City Council President who joined the Port last January. “He’s got so much history. He holds on to some of these issues like a hungry animal you have to wrestle to the ground.”

Cushman took Peters’ words as a compliment. He’s preparing for his departure by training National City’s Valderrama, next year’s chair, and removing himself from heading various Port committees.

“It’s time for me to move aside,” Cushman said.

He cited the experience of Chula Vista’s three finalists, former Mayor Steve Padilla, former City Attorney Ann Moore and attorney Yuri Calderon, as examples of new Port Commissioner’s strength.

Moving Forward

The new commissioners will help determine the fate of the region’s face-changing efforts.

The San Diego Convention Center Task Force, which Cushman chaired, decided last month an expansion was necessary, but punted the funding question to Sanders. The Port, among other organizations, now will be lobbied to help contribute.

Cushman has maintained that the Port can’t pay. Previous Convention Center efforts, which the Port did fund, came when the Port and Airport Authority were under the same umbrella.

Cushman believed he had convinced DeMaio of the Port’s dire budget situation after they met following DeMaio issuing of his memo. Money reserved for the Port’s aborted Gaylord hotel and Convention Center project was dependent on revenue from that development, Cushman said.

But DeMaio still thinks the Port needs to step up.

“The councilman does believe there’s a substantial flow of money at the Port and they have unencumbered reserves,” DeMaio spokeswoman Erica Mendelson said. “They should be coming to the table.

“With respect to the Gaylord project,” she added, “they made it work with that, they can make it work now.”

Cushman disagreed with Mendelson. He did concede the Port had a conservative reserve policy, but thought someone of DeMaio’s political bent would appreciate that.

“I am surprised quite frankly that Councilmember DeMaio as a conservative isn’t supportive of our policy on reserves,” he said.

The Port has long been involved in the search for a new Chargers stadium, particularly in Chula Vista. But with the continued operation of the South Bay Power Plant and lack of negotiations for the Gaylord site, there’s no Port option for a stadium.

Still, even if the Chargers find a home at a current target in Escondido, the team could pair the stadium project with a supporting development on Port lands in Chula Vista, according to Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani.

“The Port happens to have two of the most interesting pieces of land around, so they’re always going to be involved in the discussions,” said Fabiani, referring to Chula Vista and the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal in San Diego.

Cushman said the Port is continuing to work with the Chargers, and he’s believed all along the best stadium site was the South Bay plant, though that’s now off the table. He’ll be taking a trip on his own dime to see the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium.

The Port’s jewel is 500 acres of potential development along the bay in Chula Vista. There’s no replacement there for the Gaylord project, but the Port is moving ahead with a land swap with San Diego-based developer Pacifica Companies and working to resolve environmental issues.

“It’s the biggest project that’s on our books,” Cushman said.

But it will be left to others to reach the final chapter.

Clarification: The original version of this story said Steve Cushman’s term ended next year. It officially ends January 2011.

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