In a sold out conference, consisting of elected officials, businesses, educators and community leaders, members of the South County Economic Development Council (SCEDC) met Friday at the San Diego Convention Center to network, listen to economic projections and vent their own challenges and accomplishments in facing today's tough economy.
SCEDC's 21st Annual Economic Summit held Sept. 30 tackled tough blockades in South County's economic future, including education, unemployment, binational business relationships and the poor performance of the San Diego/Mexico border.
Divided into two panels, Economic Outlook and Elected Officials topics focused on the state of the South San Diego County Region and its future.
SCEDC government partners include the cities of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego as well as San Diego County, Baja California and the Port of San Diego.
President of the San Diego Workforce Partnership Mark Cafferty said his office knows what unemployment looks like, as they see the faces of struggling small business owners and people below the poverty level seeking jobs.
"There isn't any specific increase in any section of race or age, but a massive increase in the number of men that walk into our office," Cafferty said. "And there are an alarming number of veterans that have served admirably and are trained professionals. I hope these are the numbers that everyone leaves here remembering."
Cafferty said the unemployment rate for veterans is more than 25 percent and could reach an estimated 30 percent. With a 10.2 percent unemployment rate in San Diego County, South San Diego cities are higher, with August unemployment rates of 16.2 percent in Imperial Bebach. 11.8 percent in Chula Vista and 19.3 percent in National City, the highest of any city in the county.
"We need an 'all hands on deck' approach and not an 'I win, you lose' politics," he said.
Professor Dr. Alan Gin with the University of San Diego and publisher of the USD's monthly Index of Leading Economic Indicators for San Diego County said that so far it looks like 2011 has been a good year.
San Diego County lost approximately 70,000 jobs in 2009 and nearly 10,000 in 2010. Reports this year to August, show an increase of 16,000 jobs countywide. San Diego still remains about one percent above the national unemployment rate but below the state rate.
"Some say we are heading into a double-dip recession," Gin said. "I don't think so, but it is a hard possibility."
Gin said job growth is greatest in leisure and hospitality, health care services, administrative and support services, scientific, and technical services. Construction and government positions were hit hardest with losses by the last recession, and he predicts a positive but weak year of growth in 2012.
Chairman Rafael Pastor said Vistage International Inc. is a data driven service, and combines what small to large businesses think about the state of the economy today. Vistage includes more than 15,000 CEO members in fifteen countries. Figures show a large lack of confidence in today's economy from business owners.
"We showed a big lost this quarter," said Pastor. "Most disturbing is 40 percent of our CEOs said 'economic uncertainty' is the most significant issue they face right now. When caution sets in, businesses back off hiring and growth."
Imperial Beach Councilmember Jim King said it is important to realize it is a time of change.
He said economic breakdowns in the nation and state are creating financial difficulties for every city. Taxes are not coming in as expected and the governor and legislature's attempt to redefine redevelopment agencies is having a huge impact on small cities, he said. King said the American Legion project to create low-income housing for veterans is potentially in peril due to the possibility of losing redevelopment funds.
"We have a small tax base in Imperial Beach, so every dime of resources we can gain through redevelopment monies is to our advantage," King said.
"South County is in fact a mega-region and the infrastructure being done at the border with transportation, rail and other avenues of access are very important."
California's 51st Congressional District Congressman Bob Filner said he knows how much border waiting cost the state. He said despite a rich diverse culture that attracts people to this region, that many people are afraid of it.
"65 percent of San Diegans have never crossed the border," Filner said. "We have to glorify this border. Not demagog it as some bad thing we have to be afraid of. We have to say this is what is going to be our city, our economy, our future and we have to be excited about it."
Assemblyman Ben Hueso who represents Imperial Beach and the 79th district said reducing the border wait time by one hour would contribute $7 billion to the state economy every year.
Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante said $600 million of investment by the U.S. federal government and $200 million by Mexico will double the amount of gates on both sides and should reduce border-crossing time greatly.
"Tijuana/San Diego bi-national area is the largest and most dynamic area of the U.S. Mexico border region and for many decades they have been linked," Bustamante said. "The Tijuana economy has developed mostly due to the economic exchange of the border region."
Mexican Congressman Gaston Luken of Baja California said local official are not taking advantage of opportunities already in place.
"Build closer ties. Look south. The world is not flat," he said.
Luken said many prospects in Mexico could help stimulate the local economy on both sides. "There are many things to do, but fix the border," he said. Getting technology and looking at other countries (like Israel) that protect security without hindering the flow at the border is part of the solution.
Senator Juan Vargas said decreasing border wait time is not just a local problem and it is time for a public ownership of State Route 25 and a third border crossing is part of the solution.
"When you think about Tijuana and you think about San Diego, we are very similar in various ways," Vargas said.
Mayor Bustamante said it is important for people in the San Diego region to know what the city is doing. He said it is working hard to change the perception of Tijuana as just a crime-ridden city caused by drug cartels fighting with each other.
Creating jobs for South County residents and programs designed to stimulate the local economy were the subject of several of South County's elected officials.
Coronado Councilman Barbara Denny said he expects to see less traffic congestion in the future with recent changes made at the council level.
"I envision an expanded ferry system in San Diego Bay that is both cost effective and environmentally friendly," Denny said. "I would like to reduce traffic congestion on Interstate 5 and in our town by connecting our communities with affordable service on the ferry for residents, employees and tourists."
San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox said at the county level they are working on a strong infrastructure and creating jobs.
"I don't think there is anything as elected officials that we should be focusing on other than trying to create jobs locally," Cox said. The county for example has completed the first phase of the County Operation Center, a $184 million project he claims creates 200 to 250 jobs a day.
He said several county infrastructure projects bring jobs to the local economy. Beginning next year, the San Diego Waterfront Park and the Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility project will create more than 700 construction jobs.
Assemblyman Marty Block of the 78th district said it is important to form bipartisan relationships because California's partisan stance hurts the state.
He said his new bill, AB900 allows the governor to pick 10 projects around the state over $100 million and allow a streamlined litigation process.
"This could include projects like the San Diego Convention expansion, sports stadium or any other projects move much more quickly," said Block. "It will attract more money because of less delay. San Diego is sure to get a couple or few of these projects."
Block said higher education is his passion and he is working closely with South Bay educators to create a center of higher education for the youth of South Bay, including a bill for a new four-year university in Chula Vista.
Hueso said he two very important legislative bills this year he thinks will bring money to his district. AB 981, California Capital Access Program targets small businesses in underserved areas that would increase the lending criteria so more businesses qualify.
"We leveraged $84 million into about $2 billion worth of loans for small businesses," Hueso said. "The biggest issue in putting people back to work is to invest in the areas where most people work."
Infrastructure State Revolving Fund, AB 696 has loaned more than $30 billion for economic growth since creation with about $500 million available this year for loans to businesses, non-profits, cities and government agencies for economic development projects, Hueso said.
California is unique in the nation, said Keynote Speaker Bill Lockyer, the state treasurer. He said that even in this economy the possibility of creating new businesses and jobs is strong. Well-educated, highly paid jobs are his primary goal in turning around the economy of the state.
"The largest challenge is training our future generation to fill these positions," he said. "Higher education produces wealth and not supporting it is a long term mistake in generating the future economy."
Lockyer said he had hope for the future, but many challenges from the state and national level block progress.
Lockyer said several "trends" in California are advantages at the local level. The state sits on the Pacific Rim. It is full of tourism possibilities and has a rich diversity.
"We have skimmed the planet for 300 years and brought the best of the world right here," said Lockyer. "This is an incredible place of entrepreneurs and dreamers all with the fundamental principle that everyone counts."