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The San Diego Foundation admits its latest endeavor sounds nebulous.

The local philanthropic foundation wants a major role in planning San Diego’s long-term future. And in charging itself with that task it’s stepping into a void it believes has been created by a lack of capability or trust in government and business.

San Diego’s population is projected to grow by 1.4 million people by 2050, but the foundation is unconvinced that existing institutions, like government planning agencies, will adequately prepare San Diego for that growth on their own. That means not only planning for where those residents will live or how they’ll get around, but also where they’ll work and how well their children will be educated.

“People don’t trust government like they used to, and business is losing its credibility,” said Bob Kelly, the foundation’s CEO. “Not-for-profits are going to play a larger role in the future. It’s a reality. Our goal is to create a sense of urgency.”

The idea is still rather undefined, but public meetings to engage residents in drafting a vision for policymakers are underway.

And the bold effort has precedent, from Seattle to Orlando. The foundation’s effort here is partly modeled after one in Salt Lake City, where light rail commuter trains are now redefining transportation throughout a long, narrow swath of land home to 80 percent of the state’s nearly 3 million residents.

In the 1990s, a nonprofit called Envision Utah got roughly 20,000 residents involved in drafting a vision and priorities for the area’s growth. It used the document to turn the public’s preferences into specific strategies for accommodating that growth. Transit was a main one. It then partnered with local and high-ranking politicians and policymakers to lobby and advocate for them.

After earlier rejecting them, voters twice approved tax increases to expand rail. The state now leads the nation in light rail construction.

“Does Envision Utah take full credit?” said Robert Grow, the nonprofit’s founding chairman. “Absolutely not.” The 2002 Winter Olympics also motivated construction.

But getting the public involved was key, he said. “Once the public spoke their mind, politicians moved quickly.”

Nonprofits across the country have undertaken similar efforts, increasingly to fill a void left by local governments’ dwindling ability to provide basic services, let alone plan for the future. In central Florida, residents wanted to promote economic growth by recruiting biomedical research firms. In Chicago, they wanted to improve the freight capacity that fuels the region’s economy.

In Utah, the effort was a response to a massive population and development boom in the 1990s. Nonprofit and business leaders sensed that no one was charting a cohesive strategy to manage that growth.

The San Diego Foundation sees a similar problem. It’s involving politicians, planners, policymakers and thousands of residents to draft a document it’s calling Our Greater San Diego Vision, which will outline priorities for the region’s future. It hopes the massive public involvement will give it the necessary heft to influence policy, much like the effort in Utah did.

The project is a product of the foundation’s unease.

Its precise strategy is still evolving. But Grow has been making frequent trips to San Diego to help. The foundation plans to make roughly $2 million in grants each year to individuals and organizations to implement the priorities established in its document.

The foundation is looking to do work that has typically been done by local cities or San Diego’s regional planning agency.

Until now, much of its focus has been on cultivating local philanthropic giving. But its public outreach for Our Greater San Diego Vision, including public workshops, has often looked less like the work of a private foundation and more like what regional or municipal planners might do.

Some of its focuses, like transportation and land use, are clearly under the authority of San Diego’s regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments. The agency has the power to allocate billions of dollars for transportation.

But Sandag’s planning documents are laced with jargon and acronyms that few can understand, and it has faced criticism for making its decision-making process incomprehensible for the general public. The foundation wants to foster closer ties between Sandag and residents so the agency’s decisions reflect the public’s priorities.

Kelly said Sandag was initially wary of the effort, given the obvious overlap of missions. But the foundation has convinced Sandag’s leadership to get on board and help.

Muggs Stoll, a senior planner at Sandag, said the agency looked forward to participating. Early next year, it will begin updating its own long-term regional plan for San Diego, and Stoll said the foundation’s effort might help Sandag improve its own public outreach.

Still, unlike Sandag and other government planning agencies, the foundation’s vision will have no legal authority. It can’t rezone land or allocate tax money.

But in Salt Lake City, the nonprofit worked to convince politicians of its visioning document’s importance, even recruiting high-level politicians to its board, including Jon Huntsman Jr., who later became governor.

Kelly said the document will help the foundation home in on its own funding priorities: whether to fund school initiatives or transit advocates, among countless other possibilities. And it will help the foundation decide what specific issues to prioritize, much like Envision Utah did with transit, he said.

The foundation expects to have the document done by next summer and funding to start soon after. But in November, it plans to unveil preliminary plans on its website and wants the public to log on and offer its input.

Full disclosure: The San Diego Foundation is VOSD’s landlord and a founding supporter. Our editorial decisions are made independent from those considerations.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

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

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