What if San Diego could be the first major city to end homelessness? What if it could develop a new rapid bus program that ran with the frequency of a subway? What if the city and private sector gave all children places to go before and after school?

Those hypotheticals were all introduced by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner on the campaign trail — he often articulated his vision for the city by posing questions.

Here’s another question: When is Filner using soaring rhetoric and when is he actually promising to do something? His style can make nailing down campaign pledges tough.

Filner has made his big-picture plan for the city clear: Turn the people and issues long marginalized in city politics into decision-makers and policy priorities. That includes naming environmental, neighborhood and open-government advocates as key advisers and pushing for alternative energy and port industrial development.

Here are three of Filner’s big promises in those areas and some of the hurdles he’ll face in accomplishing them.

Expand the Port

Filner rarely missed a chance to talk about growing industrial commerce at the Unified Port of San Diego.

Expanding the port, he said at a September debate, has “the biggest single potential for (increasing) middle-class jobs in this nation. 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.”

Filner’s goal isn’t just to create jobs, it’s to deliver well-paying jobs. He says he will create 6,000 jobs in port industry and related areas by 2020, with a focus on those that pay more than $50,000 annually.

He plans to lead Asian and South American trade missions from San Diego, boost the region’s exports by 33 percent, encourage shipbuilding and start an incubator for maritime-related small businesses.

Still, San Diego’s port isn’t exactly primed for the kind of growth Filner envisions.

It brings in niche goods, such as cars and bananas, not the various and sundry consumer items handled by ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. And San Diego’s port is spending only a fraction of what its northern neighbors have invested to increase commerce.

Peter Hall, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and an expert on urban ports, said expanding here could bring job numbers in the hundreds, not thousands.

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

Solar-Power the City

Graphic by Scott Lewis. Photo by Sam Hodgson.

Every city and school building in San Diego will be solar powered within five years if Filner has his way.

It’s one of Filner’s boldest promises. His idea could turn the city into a beacon — literally — for alternative energy and is a key plank in his economic development and environmental platforms. Municipal spending on solar energy will spur growth in the private sector, Filner argues.

But Filner hasn’t released any details about how he’d achieve his goal.

Consider: If Filner wants to power all city buildings just through solar, he’d need to increase municipal production by 11,000 percent, a city energy official told me in July.

To generate enough solar power for every municipal building through rooftops, the city would need so much roof space it could more than cover San Diego State University’s campus. It could cost upwards of a half-billion dollars. A giant solar plant in the desert would generate power more efficiently, but would require regulatory approval and energy transmission.

Diversify the City’s Power Structure

Filner often makes a joke about San Diego’s decision-makers: If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.

So Filner said he’d bring people and groups traditionally left out of the city’s power structure into the fold, neighborhoods activists and environmentalists among them. U-T San Diego recently asked him how voters should judge if he’s kept that promise.

Look at my staff and the appointments I make to city boards and commissions, Filner said.

Labor leader Lorena Gonzalez, a Filner supporter, made the same point after Filner’s election. San Diego’s often small group of powerbrokers sometimes is derisively referred to as the San Diego 20. Under Filner, she said, that will change.

“The San Diego 20 becomes the San Diego 200,” Gonzalez said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

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.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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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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