“The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead station.”—William GibsonThe Port of San Diego finds itself in uncharted water these days, bobbing—sometimes clumsily—between anger and trepidation, emotions that perhaps seem understandable when faced with The Great Unknown.
Nancy and Richard Chase, the separated couple who brought us the great debate over the Gregory Canyon Landfill near Pala in North County, have teamed up with developer Frank Gallagher and a mysterious host of investors to set their sights on yet another seemingly impossible dream: somehow melding maritime business on a much-coveted chunk of San Diego bay shoreline a baseball's throw to the south of Petco Park with perhaps a new home for the San Diego Chargers.
Caught in the middle of this ever-evolving storyline of mystery and speculation are the gritty workers at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, which everyone admits isn't the Port of L.A. or Long Beach in its scope but nonetheless is defended as a vital economic engine in a region scarce on such things.
Sharon Cloward, president of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, the voice and public persona of many of the workers along port tidelands, has battled breast cancer (“I'm two years OK now,” she says), but she now faces yet another challenge that she admits may not go her way.
In its 45-year history, the port has never faced a ballot-box initiative, and, frankly, it shows. The port relied on an attorney more versed in real-estate matters than election law and now faces a Sept. 4 court hearing over the language that will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot that came to the county Registrar of Voters too late.
A gag order—port officials hate that phrase—imposed first in 2004 and again more recently by port commissioners on discussions of alternate uses for 10th Avenue Terminal has done little to quell debate about the Chases' motives and bayfront aspirations. Although the initiative's proponents failed to return phone calls to Spin Cycle, they have demonstrated an upper hand in political maneuvering—the 10-year slog over Gregory Canyon clearly taught them well.
So, barring any port success in court, the ballot initiative that will appear in November will likely remain as the proponents want it and folks like Cloward contend is horribly misleading: “The Port of San Diego Marine Freight Preservation and Bayfront Redevelopment Initiative.”
To further tie the port's hands, as a public agency it's prohibited by law from advocating its intense opposition to such an idea. When the port issued an open letter earlier this year that appeared in local print—including in CityBeat—it was chastised for doing just that. Since then, the agency seems understandably gun-shy about talking about the initiative.
“We still believe we did nothing wrong then,” port spokesperson and former reporter Irene McCormack told Spin Cycle this week, “that we were really trying to educate the public. So now, we are just not doing anything at all.”
Well, not really nothing. They have spent a six-figure sum on advertising to extol a “Port Matters” marketing campaign—pointing out, for example, the millions of bananas that come through the port every month—but as McCormack insists, “There's no reference at all to the initiative. It's just trying to get people to see maritime and what we bring in there for what it is.”
And that's clearly where the port finds itself in a bind. In June, the port hired a Santa Monica-based public-polling firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates—whose extensive client list includes everyone from Al Gore and Jimmy Carter to the lower-hanging political fruit of City Councilmember Jim Madaffer and the late Charles Lewis—to gauge, as the port's agreement states, “public opinion of the economic and regional benefits of the [Port] District's maritime operations.”
Port commissioners are just now being briefed on the results, which have yet to be released, but McCormack notes—in the Good News Department—that “73 percent of the people responding to the poll recognized the port and consider it well run.” But when questions turned to maritime uses, respondents “really don't know much,” she said.
And when the initiative was brought up by name, she said, a solid majority said “it sounds great.” That number, she said with a sigh, hovers near two-thirds support.
“When they heard preservation of the marine terminal, they were like, ‘Wow! Very important!'” McCormack said. “And most of them thought it was a Port of San Diego-sponsored initiative, which it's not.”
The problem, as McCormack sees it, is that places like the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal and its sister facility in National City are operations that citizens rarely see, an issue further exacerbated by the security fears generated post-9/11. “The things people know most about the port are its recreational and hotel and tourist-industry-type venues, the convention center, Shelter Island, Harbor Island,” McCormack said. “They don't see the movement of goods.”
The public is also inundated with a flurry of varying numbers on potential job losses and revenue departures should the maritime industry be shackled by a proposed “double deck” over the 10th Avenue Terminal, as apparently envisioned by the Chases.
Former Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis, the lone dissenter in the 2004 gag-order vote who has suffered the slings and arrows for thinking beyond maritime use at the site (which some suggest is valued at $2 billion), says maritime supporters frequently pull out the “domino effect” theory that if the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal goes, all maritime business flees.
(In fact, the Port Tenant Association's Cloward did suggest that the loss of 10th Avenue could lead to the collapse of local shipbuilders like NASSCO and, ultimately, the departure of the Navy to Tacoma, Wash., which she said has been “vying to get the Navy up there for years.”)
Davis said folks like Cloward and former mayoral candidate Steve Francis, from his perch as chairman of the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, lump job totals together to “maximize the numbers,” then multiply the number of related jobs “tenfold up to 19,000 jobs by determining, but not substantiating, the relationship.”
“Neither of these group's figures would be admissible in court, as neither has built a foundation of believability,” Davis insists. “Thus, I don't think the public should accept them at face value, either.”
Meanwhile, Cloward says her coalition will now take over the political fight, calling themselves Save Our Working Waterfront. They've hired a San Francisco consultant and are raising funds.
“The port's never done this,” she said. “We've never done this. No one's ever done it. But people are faced with, ‘Wow, this is going forward,' and it's not good.”
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