On the day Jerry Groomes was formally chosen to become the new president of the city’s Southeastern Economic Development Corp., Gov. Jerry Brown announced he would try to close part of California’s budget gap by eliminating local redevelopment agencies like SEDC.

Groomes had just left his job as city manager of a Los Angeles suburb. But what was done was done. In the weeks since, Groomes is settling into his new post at the agency charged with redeveloping and revitalizing poor, blighted areas of southeastern San Diego.

It remains to be seen whether California will let the hammer fall on redevelopment, so in the meantime, Groomes has gotten to work. It’s a familiar task. He held this very job from 1988 to 1993 before leaving for Carson.

Now he’s back to fill a post that hasn’t had a permanent occupant since Carolyn Y. Smith, the agency’s last permanent president, was forced from her job in 2008 after a voiceofsandiego.org investigation uncovered she had secretly awarded bonuses to herself and other staff without any oversight.

I sat down with Groomes to talk about the community, his strategy for resurrecting SEDC’s tarnished reputation and the agency’s uncertain future.

How has southeastern San Diego changed in the 17 years you’ve been away?

Certainly there are a number of projects that were good for the community, like this Jacobs Market Street development we’re sitting in now, the library, some good residential projects. All that’s real good stuff that represents some changes.

But there are a lot of things that have not changed. You ride through the streets and you see a lot of need. Relative to the rest of the city, southeastern San Diego still has a ways to go. Trying to focus on the economic development initiatives is going to be the continuing challenge — to ultimately see the southeastern community as no different from any other part of San Diego.

Part of your job is to convince private developers and investors who have been reluctant to come in and take part. But how?

You have the redevelopment tool, which hopefully will continue to exist with the state issues going on.

More of a challenge is attracting businesses, but they make decisions to locate based on bottom line. That’s where the agency’s so important, because we have the tools to make businesses and development projects more cost effective.

You alluded to the state’s budget challenges and the governor’s proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies. On a personal level, you’re just starting this new job and then —

Crazy, huh? (laughs) I think they announced that the day I was finally approved. It’s kind of like, wrong place, wrong time.

But SEDC is a perfect example of the kind of community where redevelopment is needed. This whole state conversation around eliminating redevelopment really doesn’t recognize the value it has in communities like this.

They’re focused on where there have been stadiums or high rises or five-star hotels, where there clearly has been misuse or even abuse of what redevelopment is supposed to be about. Those examples are the ones people refer to when they say we need to just get rid of this.

But if you take the redevelopment tool out of southeastern San Diego, you lose a big part of your toolbox to get that equal footing.

Why did you come back here?

After 17 years as a city manager, that was good enough for me. There’s a lot of needs in this community and I think there are things we can do to rebuild the trust and confidence in SEDC, which is really important and is lacking right now.

Were you watching the scandal unfold here while you were in Carson?

From afar. I kept track and heard things. Frankly, coming back here now, I think it’s good I came back not directly on the heels of that. The interim president that was in place got a lot of that stuff cleaned up. My focus is moving forward and trying to do things that are constructive.

But within certain communities and within the political community, there is still a lot of mistrust of SEDC.

And I think it probably was deserved. The thing about me coming here is that I’m no stranger here. There are a lot of people I don’t know, but there may be even more people I do know. They know I’m a person who can be trusted and who’s not going to be involved in scandals. I’m not that kind of person and I’m certainly not going to change now.

What are some priorities you have for projects?

There are a number of development projects on hold that I’m anxious to get off hold. There’s a development site, Valencia Business Park, that we have on our agenda to move forward next week.

I’m looking forward to working as a key partner with the Jacobs Foundation and some of the projects they need to move forward, including the Walgreens store and the residential project by the trolley.

As the Jacobs projects get underway, there’s this tension in the community stemming from the need for affordable housing but also some residents’ opposition to it because of what it means for a community demographically.

That’s a perception issue in all communities. For you who went to school in Chicago and me being from Philadelphia, you talk about affordable housing and people think “the projects.” But affordable housing is a relative term. Let’s face it, we’re talking in a lot of cases housing conducive for your teachers, your cops, your city workers.

Another perception is that affordable housing is not attractive. Those things are all inconsistent with a lot of really successful affordable housing projects.

It’s a mindset, but there’s an affordable housing need across San Diego, and there’s an obligation to meet that need. And not just in southeast San Diego, because the last thing about that perception element is sometimes well, let’s dump all the affordable housing in the ‘hood. That’s not what should be happening.

What’s your opinion of the term southeastern San Diego, or Southeast. There’s a lot of disagreement about that term of reference for this community.

I hear you.

Councilman George Stevens didn’t like ‘southeast’ at all.

When I was here before, this was called the Southeast Economic Development Corp. (Today, it’s Southeastern). When I came back I was like, did I miss something? There was an initiative directed at trying to change the perception.

Southeastern has an old negative connotation associated with “that part of town.” I don’t know how you change that other than promoting the neighborhoods, to talk about Encanto or Mount Hope.

What is your vision for southeastern San Diego while you’re in this job?

To make it happen. To connect assets within the community that a lot of people just don’t realize are here. There are opportunities to build on those and I think in the next few years people are going to start to say, ‘Yeah, there are some changes going on here, and things are positive.’ That’s what I want to do.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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