Inadequate infrastructure at the border dominates most discussions about San Diego’s relationship with Baja California.

Indeed, it’s difficult to work as a region when an hours-long trek across the border thwarts most trips into San Diego or Tijuana.

Mayor Bob Filner wants to fix that problem — but he also wants to reshape the conversation.

He’s promised to capitalize on San Diego’s close proximity to Tijuana and the rest of Baja California by opening an office across the border and encouraging other forms of cross-border cooperation. Meanwhile, he and the Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante plan to lobby for federal funds to solve the region’s most chronic border waits. (We detailed this effort here.)

We talked to Filner, as well as experts and political leaders on both sides of the border, to get a clearer sense of what the new mayor can accomplish if he truly makes the issue a priority.

As San Diego’s second strong mayor, Filner has the ability to put cross-border relations at the top of his agenda in a way that’s unprecedented.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders laid the foundation for Filner. He cultivated strong partnerships with Tijuana leaders and officials in other border cities. (For details on how San Diego and Tijuana compare to other binational cities, check out this recent post.)

But in his first days as mayor, Filner made it clear he would throw even more weight behind the effort. He said border issues — both cultural and economic — should be central to San Diegans and thus, his administration.

“We happen to be the biggest city on the border with Mexico so it’s a necessity,” Filner said. “It’s obviously an incredible boon for business, if we had an efficient border crossing.”

Here’s a look at three key areas where Filner could have an impact during his four-year term:

Day-to-day communication

San Diego has maintained a city office to coordinate cross-border relations for years but emphasis has varied based on who is leading the city.

San Diego first created an Office of Binational Affairs in the mid-1970s. Under some mayors, the division was more focused on scheduling get-togethers than working on daily business or new initiatives.

Filner seems more interested in the latter.

He hired Mario Lopez, a well-respected authority on border issues who has worked for politicians in both the U.S. and Baja California, to lead his binational affairs office.

Plans are in the works to open an office in Tijuana, a move Filner said will enhance relations between the two cities. Bustamante and others see the new office as a symbol of Filner’s commitment to cross-border cooperation.

While Tijuana has kept an office in San Diego for some time, this is the first time the U.S. city will take the same approach, Bustamante said.

Filner said the new office will speed up San Diego’s response to any issues that arise across the border.

“You’re right there without worrying about phone connections or other things to get information, and to promote information,” Filner said.

The mayor hasn’t announced where the office will be but at least one border expert thinks it should be located right on the border.

Securing a spot right at a crossing would allow political and business leaders from both sides to enter the office without crossing the border, a task that creates headaches even for the highest-level officials, said Oscar Romo, a University of California, San Diego lecturer and former United Nations diplomat.

Romo, who has worked on border issues for years, hopes the office will be more than just symbolic. To truly bolster relations between San Diego and Tijuana, staffers can’t simply serve as liaisons for tourists.

“If it’s just going to be a representation, it’s not going to work,” Romo said.

Filner is also setting up a communication system of his own: a phone at his desk that will immediately put him in touch with Bustamante.

“The mayor of Tijuana calls it a bat phone. I call it a hotline we can just pick up and have each other connected right away,” Filner said.

Bustamante said the two have also exchanged cell phone numbers.

Economic Development

Leaders across the world advertise the advantages of doing business in their cities. They tout excellent schools or incentives for corporations.

San Diego and Tijuana have each other.

Businesses can build factories on the Mexico side of the border and find cheaper labor costs, but set up corporate offices across the border. In effect, boosters can tout San Diego’s technology industry and beach views along with Tijuana’s lower costs and available land.

And Tijuana, which had been plagued with a spike in violent crime, is developing a more positive reputation across the globe.

Tijuana leaders recently cheered a story from the U.K.-based Guardian that heralded the city’s economic successes.

Flavio Olivieri, executive director of the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation, said Filner’s attention could be a game-changer for the region.

He could encourage San Diego companies to find ways to innovate and partner with Tijuana companies, and work with Tijuana officials to promote the region. The mayor could even help by simply reviewing regional efforts to promote cross-border business and speaking publicly about their progress, Olivieri said.

The mayor could also help draw business to the region by pushing for an expanded rail system that would simplify the transport of goods between San Diego and Baja California and the central and eastern United States.

Today, Olivieri said, most items from the San Diego-Tijuana region must make a pit stop in Los Angeles before they can be dispersed across the U.S.

Bustamante said he wants to partner with Filner to draw economic assets to the two cities.

“We can promote investment, foreign investment in San Diego and Tijuana together,” he said.

San Diego’s Spokesman

Sometimes the mayor’s most powerful tool is his ability to draw attention. He encounters microphones and large audiences almost daily.

If he speaks about border issues, San Diegans listen.

“Mayors have the bully pulpit,” said Christina Luhn, who directs the Mega-Region Initiative for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. “The biggest power they have is the capacity to go out and make the case for something and then help bring people together.”

Still, he may face a tough audience in some areas of San Diego.

A two-year survey released by The San Diego Foundation last March reveals the challenge Filner faces. The non-profit asked more than 30,000 San Diegans about economic development priorities the region should emphasize over the next 40 years. Cross-border partnerships drew a paltry response.

That feeling likely extends to other border issues, too.

But the tide may be changing, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

As U-T San Diego noted last month, increased voter participation among Latinos and residents of communities south of Interstate 8 helped lift Filner into office.

These voters are more affected by border issues and tend to have more ties across the border, Shirk said. “That creates a political context in which Filner has strong incentives to pay close attention to issues of the Latino communities.”

If Filner can successfully persuade other communities that border issues are worth more attention, he may inspire untold cross-border partnerships and trips.

He’s already celebrated one: Last month, the mayor welcomed the Tijuana’s Xolos, who recently won the Mexican soccer title, on their first day training at Petco Park.

Filner said he plans to find other ways to draw attention to the San Diego-Tijuana region too.

“It should be a place of activity and dynamism and energy because it is so unique to live in the kind of binational area we live in,” he said. “And we’re not taking full advantage of it in terms of not only economic ties but cultural ties.”

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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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.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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