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sights along the San Diego bay boardwalkThe Bay Gets Bigger

After the firestorm surrounding Port Commissioner David Malcolm’s resignation amid conflict-of-interest charges, there couldn’t be a better time to revamp the general image of local water. In January, the Port of San Diego, to better support its 600 business tenants that occupy the waterfront, launched a major new marketing campaign to promote the bay as a unified destination for locals and tourists.

A half-million dollars has gone into the promotion—spent on radio, TV and print ads, a Web site, informational telephone line, press kits, brochures, posters and special events. The Port is raising the profile of the bay, with its 27 miles of waterfront, 16 bayside parks, 16 marinas, 69 restaurants, 14 hotels and a veritable cornucopia of other businesses.

The initiative has two goals, according to Rita Vandergaw, senior director of marketing and communications for the Port. “The first is to get visitors and local residents to come down and enjoy the waterfront,” she says. “The heart of the city—the reason we exist—is this bay. This is what really brought the first settlements here. The second is to get more people to spend money, which allows us to generate revenue we can put back into infrastructure [for things like] public art and parks.

“One reason we’ve advanced this now is that the timing is critical. It’s the ‘soft season’ after Christmas and before summer, when people are just staying at home.”

But why, one might reasonably ask, does the bay need its profile raised? Isn’t it already prominent enough? After all, it’s the only landmark in San Diego County that’s visible from outer space.

“Unfortunately, since September 11, tourism across the U.S. has certainly decreased,” says Steve Cushman, chairman of the Port Commission. “And what we are trying to do because of that is get San Diegans to realize that they have a tremendous asset. We’ve never promoted the ‘big bay.’ We all know Mission Bay and the zoo and SeaWorld and Harbor Excursions ... but we don’t think of the big bay. It’s probably the city’s best-kept secret. Our merchants could use the additional business, and we’re trying to be a good landlord and say, ‘Come down and see our merchants.’”

This onslaught of P.R.—well timed as it may be—isn’t related to the Malcolm drama or recent appointment of two new port commissioners, according to Cushman. “I never even thought about that,” he says. “That’s between David Malcolm and his city, quite frankly. We started talking about [the promotion] last summer, even way before September 11. That day caused us to turn up the heat on it.

“There’s a tremendous number of free events going on all the time, and we’re going to try to publicize those,” Cushman says, mentioning the Imperial Beach sandcastle-building contest. “I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of publicizing them in the past. There’s always stuff going on, and we don’t talk about it. We’re going to try to acquaint San Diegans with the opportunities there are 365 days a year.”

In short: For the same amount of money it spent on Malcolm’s legal fees, the Port now intends to remind locals that, yes, San Diego, we have a bay.

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