Exploring our Booming South Bay
By Kirk Sanderson
(page 1 of 2)The southern portion of San Diego County is a real-life land of opportunity that is only now beginning to get the attention it so richly deserves as a wonderful place to live, work and play.
South County is home to an Olympic training center, two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, a glorious Victorian hotel, Hitachi’s North American headquarters, a huge outdoor amphitheater, a “mile of cars” that leads the county in automobile sales, spectacular golf courses, a first-class marina and waterfront park and oh yes, the largest sandcastle-building contest in the world.
“South County is where future growth is going to happen,” says Cindy Gompper-Graves, executive director of the South County Economic Development Council, a nonprofit organization formed in 1989 by a group of south San Diego County business and community leaders to promote the region and encourage investment.
“And this growth is going to happen largely due to our diversity,” Gompper-Graves says. “We not only have the benefits of being culturally diverse, but we also are diverse in our transportation modes, we are diverse in our housing prices, we are diverse in the types of jobs we have, we are diverse in our business base, and we are diverse in our opportunities.”
A Great Place To Live
What was once a diamond in the rough has seen its rough edges stripped away to the point where a South County address is now a mark of distinction. Even so, the housing market remains a lot more affordable than in most other parts of the county; in older parts of National City, Chula Vista and San Ysidro, it’s still possible to buy a three- or four-bedroom house for less than $300,000.
Bettie Lupi, a Chula Vista resident since 1969, wouldn’t live anywhere else but South County. “We’re very centrally located, to both the airport and to downtown San Diego, and yet Chula Vista still has its own identity,” she says. “It still has a very quaint downtown, although it’s a lot more lively and interesting.”
Lupi applauds redevelopment efforts in the older parts of town, where she lives, particularly the business district around Third Avenue.
“And there’s a lot going on with the bayfront,” she says. “It’s exciting, to see what develops down here. There’s always something going on.”
Bill Tunstall, a retired Rohr executive who has lived in Chula Vista since 1967, agrees.
“Chula Vista has become a very progressive community,” he says. “It has good leaders who have made the city very business-friendly by streamlining the bureaucracy. They’re receptive to community input and creating a balance in the development of the eastern and western parts of the city. It’s a very exciting time.”
Charles Moore, chairman of the South County Economic Development Council and an executive with Pacific Waste Services in Chula Vista, worked in Chula Vista for three years before moving there in 1988.
“Chula Vista is a charming city,” he says. “It’s small enough that you can get to know the community leaders easily, but big enough to provide all the services and amenities a family needs. And I live only 5 miles from my office; you just can’t beat that commute.”
While the rolling hills and valleys of the eastern regions of South County are home to much new development, from planned communities to custom homes priced in the millions, it’s still possible to buy a little history.
Kurt Chilcott, president and CEO of CDC Small Business Finance, five years ago bought the Russell C. Allen residence in Bonita, built in 1907 and designed by Irving Gill, San Diego’s most famous architect.
“Because it is located in South County, it has received little attention, which may be a blessing,” Chilcott says. “We moved to South County and Bonita because it is a hidden gem in San Diego that most who rarely venture south of Interstate 8 are aware of—or appreciate. We have great neighborhoods, community spirit and a feeling of still being away from it all—even though the Sweetwater River Valley is only 11 or 12 miles from downtown San Diego.”
Chilcott says he and his family also are attracted to South County because of its cultural diversity. “The proximity to Mexico makes this area unique,” he says, “and very different from North County.”
The crown jewel of South County, in the eyes of many, is the island city of Coronado, where the median price of a resale home is in excess of $900,000, making it one of the priciest communities—and most prestigious addresses—in the entire state of California.
“That’s because it’s such a wonderful little village,” says Phil Monroe, a retired Navy officer who has owned a home in the Coronado Cays since 1988, “right before the prices really shot up.” He makes it a point to roller-blade along the Silver Strand several mornings a week.
A member of the Coronado City Council for three years, Monroe says the powers that be are determined to maintain Coronado’s village atmosphere, with community events such as the city’s popular annual Fourth of July celebration. “That’s become a county picnic,” Monroe says.
He notes with pride that Coronado has been nationally recognized with the Great American Main Street Award and has been named one of the Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
New homebuyers in South County might want to take a look at EastLake. “We have a great lifestyle, we are somewhat affordable still—you can buy homes starting in the high $200,000s—and we have a reputation for being family-friendly,” says Natasha Martinez, community relations and marketing manager for the EastLake Company and a resident of EastLake for 11 years.
EastLake, the master-developed community in eastern Chula Vista, has won accolades for its top-notch schools, supported by a community-based education foundation, and its comfortable and affordable homes, constructed by a variety of builders. The first house went up in 1986, and at buildout, three years down the road, the community will consist of approximately 8,700 homes and more than 22,000 people.
“My daughter was in the first four-year class graduating from EastLake High, and is now managing the first Starbucks in EastLake,” Martinez says.
Meanwhile, down south, life is good in Imperial Beach. Diane Rose is not only mayor of the coastal city—one of the few towns left in the entire state of California where it is still possible to buy an oceanfront house for less than $1 million—she’s also a longtime resident.
“As a 30-year resident, I know that the city of Imperial Beach is a great place to live,” Rose says. “Surrounded by national parks and a beautiful beachfront, our neighborhoods are the epitome of the laid-back, classic Southern California style. We are the most affordable coastal city, with new trendy shops and eateries and many community events throughout the year.
“Imperial Beach is a happening place.
I am proud of our community, proud of where we started and how far we have come.”
Jim Janney, an Imperial Beach councilmember and resident of the city for more than a decade, agrees.
“When I was thinking about where to move in San Diego County in the early 1990s, I considered North County but quickly saw what was going to happen there in terms of traffic,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t make money sitting on a concrete parking lot.”
He adds, “And as its name suggests, Imperial Beach is on the waterfront. What could be better than that?”
The Working Life
South County also has become a top center for business and industry. “This is a great place for huge companies, many of them in the high-tech and manufacturing sectors,” says Gompper-Graves, “and also a great place for small business—hardware stores, dry cleaners, boutiques and other businesses you’d expect to find in a small town.” Much of Imperial Beach’s commercial district, for example, consists of small, independent retailers, giving the community a decided Main Street USA feeling.
On the other hand, South County has attracted some world-class corporate players, including Hitachi, which moved its North American headquarters for consumer electronics to Chula Vista in 2002. Together with DNP Electronics America LLC and Leviton Electronics, Hitachi Home Electronics (America)—with $650 million in annual sales—forms the nucleus of Chula Vista’s emerging electronics industry cluster at the city’s acclaimed high-tech/biotech zone near EastLake.
“Hitachi is a leader in the world of consumer electronics, and at EastLake in Chula Vista we have a first-class facility to successfully operate our business,” says Michiro Funatsu, president of Hitachi Home Electronics (America). “The city of Chula Vista, a leader in its own right, offers a complete menu of resources and amenities for our business.”
South County also is home to some of San Diego’s largest native businesses. The Corky McMillin Companies, a key homebuilder, is headquartered in National City. Knight & Carver YachtCenter now operates out of one 9-acre site in National City between the 32nd Street Naval Station and the 24th Street Marine Terminal, having consolidated its new-boat construction and repair facilities, and 200 employees, from two locations in San Diego.
“We have received incredible support from the city of National City,” says Sam Brown, president and CEO of Knight & Carver. “The leaders recognize the value of industrial/commercial uses on the waterfront. And they value us as a large employer, a company that is creating jobs for South Bay residents. We’ve received a lot of help in overcoming obstacles to our growth. With this kind of treatment, we plan to stay, expand our business and create more jobs.”
No talk of South County commerce would be complete without a nod to the Mile of Cars, which has 22 new-car dealerships and has set sales records each year for the last 10 years. Annual sales now average 24,000 cars. According to the Mile of Cars Business Improvement District, it is the largest auto mall in the country, both in sales and in the number of vehicles in stock.
Tony McCune, the dean of San Diego car dealers, has been there since 1948. At his Mile of Cars dealership, he figures he sells about 3,500 new and used vehicles a year. McCune is so keen on South County that he’s expanding into Chula Vista.
“South County has come up tremendously in the economic scale,” McCune says. “We have seen huge increases in population, the quality of life has risen tremendously, our per-capita income has gone up, and the overall growth has been phenomenal.”
McCune isn’t alone in cheering South County.
Sally Preston of Union Bank says the South County environment is quite conducive to business. “The cities down here have a most business-friendly environment,” she says. “We get all walks of life, and this diversity is healthy. Regionally, our Mexico–United States economies are so intricately linked that it would be foolish not to keep abreast of all influences impacting our lives, both personally and in business.”
Terry Hansen agrees. He’s the president and CEO of Paradise Valley Hospital, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and is the second-oldest hospital in San Diego County.
“It’s very much a part of our mission to serve this culturally rich and diverse population,” Hansen says. “If the mantra for a restaurant is ‘location, location, location,’ for a hospital like ours, it’s ‘access, access, access.’ We not only provide easy access to acute medical care and outpatient services but also health education programs. And our campus serves as a resource to other community-based nonprofits dedicated to improving the health and well-being of local residents.”
Jim Janney, the Imperial Beach councilmember, owns a packaging business, O.A.P. Packaging, that’s based in I.B. He says the location “is advantageous to my company because of its proximity to the border region, where 20 percent of my business comes from.
“And South County is very convenient,” he adds. “It’s only a 20-minute drive to downtown San Diego.”