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Before San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered his final State of the City address in January, he showed the audience at downtown’s Balboa Theatre a video of his waterfront vision.

A young girl ran across the glittering Harbor Drive pedestrian bridge to San Diego Bay. She was greeted by broad walkways, canopy tents and a grassy park atop the proposed $520 million Convention Center expansion.

For one of Sanders’ possible successors, the waterfront dream has a different focus.

Mayoral candidate Bob Filner wants people to imagine crossing the bridge and turning left, away from the Convention Center. That’s toward San Diego’s Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, where cranes, trucks and ships deliver bananas, cement and lumber. Much more than a waterfront tourism nirvana, Filner envisions a jobs mecca.

Expansion of the port has “the biggest single potential for (increasing) middle class jobs in this nation,” Filner said at a debate earlier this month. “We’re talking about thousands of jobs — jobs that pay a livable wage. That has an impact on the whole economy, and whether tourists come.”

The Democratic congressman has made comments like these time and again on the campaign trail, touting increased port commerce as the cornerstone of his plan to bring more jobs to San Diego.

Filner’s opponent, Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio, hasn’t made port commerce central to his campaign. But he has his own ideas for the city’s working waterfront. DeMaio also believes commerce needs to expand and says the city should assert more influence over the Unified Port of San Diego, the agency in charge of the waterfront.

But behind the lofty campaign trail rhetoric is a more challenging reality.

San Diego’s port is tiny compared to the major hubs in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and any conceivable expansion wouldn’t change that. To match the footprint of just Long Beach, the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal and a larger terminal at National City would have to grow by almost two square miles. While those major ports to the north are spending billions to expand their commercial capacity, San Diego’s own expansion plans remain hundreds of millions underfunded.

Peter Hall, a Simon Fraser University professor who has written extensively on how port business affects cities, cautioned against pinning San Diego’s economic future on increasing port commerce.

Neither the market nor the infrastructure is there to support dreams of thousands of jobs, he said.

“It would not be smart to invest all your hope in development in the maritime industry,” Hall said.

♦♦♦

One out of every 10 imported cars driving on America’s roadways comes through San Diego’s port. So does every Dole banana sold west of the Rockies.

Here’s some cargo San Diego doesn’t specialize in: Clothes, toys, furniture, electronics, sneakers, car parts and all the other goods that fit snugly into large steel containers. The big money in West Coast commerce comes from moving lots of products like these. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports already do that.

Los Angeles’ port claims it has a $160 billion annual economic impact. San Diego’s port claims $7.6 billion. San Diego did about 2 percent of the combined business from Los Angeles and Long Beach last year, according to data from a port labor association.

Despite San Diego’s place in the market, it’s not surprising that both candidates target the port for economic development. The reason is simple: Jobs.

Public polls show San Diegans’ top issue is the economy. In 2008, salaries for a job on San Diego’s working waterfront averaged more than $54,000, 28 percent higher than the region’s average at the time, according to a study by a local think tank. Jobs like longshoremen, trucking and shipping jobs don’t require the advance degrees of those in the biotech industry and pay more than those in the tourism industry.

And San Diego’s port does have some room to grow.

Boosting the flow of the port’s niche goods, “can have a meaningful, but probably a very modest impact,” Hall said.

“There are only so many cars that can be imported,” he added. “There are only so many bananas that can be imported.”

He estimated job growth in the hundreds, not thousands, from expanded activity at the port.

Both candidates, however, have other issues to consider at the port beyond jobs. Key DeMaio and Filner supporters have competing interests on the waterfront.

Significant DeMaio backers have questioned whether the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, the smaller of the port’s two terminals, should be dedicated to maritime commerce at all. Significant Filner backers have fought for the residents living near the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, such as the 4,000 people living in Barrio Logan, and likely would oppose plans that could affect their health.

The Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal sits at the intersection of industrial commerce to the south, residential neighborhoods to the east and hotels and the Convention Center to the north. Developers have long eyed the property. Similar interests, U-T San Diego publisher Doug Manchester and the Downtown San Diego Partnership, also support DeMaio.

The newspaper has dedicated front-page editorials to promoting DeMaio’s candidacy as well as a new Chargers stadium, hotel and arena on the Tenth Avenue site. Downtown San Diego Partnership CEO Kris Michell is helping with DeMaio’s campaign and her organization is examining the terminal’s future, calling the property “underutilized.”

Filner has to contend with resident activists. He has said he wants to bring long-excluded organizations into policy-making roles, such as the public health nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition. That group has made a mission of seeking environmental safeguards in nearby Barrio Logan.

Environmental Health Coalition officials Georgette Gomez and Joy Williams said in an interview that limiting the trucks that rumble through Barrio Logan and implementing a buffer between industrial and residential development should take priority over expanding port commerce. They’ve only had a broad conversation with Filner about his port ideas.

They said they don’t know exactly what he’s proposed.

♦♦♦

The city of San Diego and the mayor do not control the port.

The city’s direct influence comes from the three commissioners it names to the port’s board. San Diego’s appointees cannot determine policy by themselves because the four votes from smaller surrounding cities, Chula Vista, National City, Coronado and Imperial Beach, hold the majority.

In this context, mayoral involvement in port operations tends toward the ceremonial rather than the impactful.

“The mayor of San Diego really has nothing to do with the port other than when you bring the Disney cruise line people here to go shake hands,” said former port commissioner Steve Cushman.

If both mayoral candidates have their way, that will change.

Filner has made the big promises about the port — “maritime center,” “thousands of jobs” — but he’s given little indication of how he’d actually fulfill them.

Filner declined an interview request for this story. Asked at a recent press conference when he’d put any of his port ideas on paper, Filner replied, “They’ll be coming.”

Previously, Filner has said that he will put various interest groups in a room and have them hammer out an expansion plan. Private investment will come, he says, once companies see the region’s commitment to commerce.

“That’s what a mayor does,” Filner said in a February interview about his economic development ideas. “You set the strategy and you bring the elements together to make it happen.”

But Filner’s strategy provides no answer to the serious questions about balancing the promises of thousands of new jobs with environmental and neighborhood priorities, the practical limits of growth and how to pay for it all.

And when he has been pushed on the foundations of his argument for greater port commerce, Filner has faltered.

In April, he dramatically understated the port’s trade statistics and the number of longshoremen it employed. Rather than admitting he was wrong, Filner was combative on the subject during a television interview, the nadir of which came when he pulled out his ringing cell phone.

Compared to Filner’s grand claims for port commerce, DeMaio’s seem modest. But they still represent a fundamental shift in city-port relations.

DeMaio, who dedicates three pages in his 93-page economic development plan to port commerce, trots out conservative buzzwords to solve the port’s problems: performance audits, public-private partnerships and streamlined permitting.

He said he strongly supports greater maritime commerce — DeMaio rejects the U-T’s stadium plan — and said the port isn’t doing an efficient job of promoting it. For instance, DeMaio said he wants to figure out how to get the region’s farmers to ship their produce from San Diego rather than trucking it to Los Angeles and Long Beach.

If San Diego port commissioners don’t embrace economic development, he said they should be replaced. DeMaio has even mentioned dissolving the port district, something floated in the past, if the port doesn’t change.

“I certainly think it would be the last recourse on a continuum of options,” DeMaio said.

♦♦♦

Over the next six years, San Diego’s port plans to spend $17 million on expanding port commerce at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.

That’s as much as the ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach spend on average every nine days under their improvements plans.

This stark difference between the ports’ spending highlights another substantial problem with the mayoral candidates’ proposals to grow port commerce: San Diego doesn’t have the money to do it.

Four years ago, the port developed a $89.5 million plan to boost the number of cars brought into the National City Marine Terminal, make larger in-roads in the steel market and handle increased banana, cement and sand business at Tenth Avenue through 2030.

The port could create almost 3,000 direct and spinoff jobs at the terminals if it made these upgrades, according to an agency consultant.

But the plan remains woefully underfunded. To date, the port has completed projects totaling less than 10 percent of the recommendations.

“There’s the plan and then life happens,” said port spokeswoman Michelle Ganon.

Now, the port’s business at Tenth Avenue is back to 2006 levels following the national recession and officials also could not say how many jobs its improvements have generated.

The financial situation is similar for a $190 million proposal to reconfigure and expand truck routes from the marine terminals to Interstate 5. This has benefits for everyone. Industry gets a speedier way to move goods in and out. Residents get fewer trucks in their neighborhood.

But federal grant requests have turned up little. Instead, the port is spending $14 million on design plans and smaller improvements.

Khalid Bachkar, a professor at the California Maritime Academy state college, said the port and elected officials’ focus should be on finding ways to finance expansion proposals, whatever they might be.

“If you don’t have money available,” Bachkar said, “those plans end up being an empty promise.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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