GOP convention casts limelight San Diego: City officials and local businesses are aiming to create a good -- and lasting -- impression.


SAN DIEGO -- Sea World is offering Republican delegates half-price tickets to see Shamu. Qualcomm, a local telecommunications company, is giving them nearly two months of e-mail service for free.

And for visiting reporters, a news center's staff answers questions, places restaurant reservations and fixes broken laptops at no charge.

With the opening of the Republican National Convention today, everyone from Mayor Susan Golding to local restaurateurs is working relentlessly to make a good impression.

"San Diego is going to be on the world stage maybe in a way it never has been previously," says Jack Ford, executive director of the city's host committee and the son of former President Gerald Ford.

While people have a clear image of other cities, he says, "San Diego kind of starts with a blank canvas. We have an opportunity to fill in that canvas and paint a vision of San Diego that does it justice."

And they are counting on journalists for help.

Fourteen thousand members of the news media are expected here this week, Ford said. The city visitors bureau estimates that the event will generate $81 million in direct spending, but says positive publicity will be worth much more.

With that in mind, the city is pursuing the press like an eager suitor. The San Diego Zoo is promoting behind-the-scenes tours where reporters can pet a white Siberian tiger cub. At times, civic officials seem like doting hosts.

"Are you having a nice time?" asked Donna Alm, Centre City Development Corp. spokeswoman, returning a reporter's call.

When morning clouds threatened to linger over San Diego Bay, Sal Giametta, an official of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, assured: "This will burn off in a couple of hours."

Looked upon years ago as a sleepy Navy port and cultural backwater, San Diego has grown into a city of 1.2 million people, the country's sixth largest. During the next week, city leaders want people to see the Gaslamp, the vibrant downtown restaurant district, and they want to show off San Diego's thriving telecommunications industry.

The event also is an opportunity for redemption. The 1972 GOP convention was scheduled for San Diego until it was revealed that the Nixon Justice Department had dropped an antitrust suit against International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. after the company donated $400,000 to the city's convention effort. The convention went to Miami instead.

"I hope people will get to know San Diego as it has become today rather than what it was 25 years ago," Golding said. "The city really has reinvented itself."

As recently as the 1970s, this was a middle-size city of mostly white retirees and military personnel. Downtown was known for brothels, bars and flop houses that catered to Navy sailors and Marines.

Today, where some of those dives once stood, is the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block stretch of restored Victorian buildings that // house 70 restaurants. At night, the open-air cafes hum with conversation as music ranging from blues to Cajun drifts out of the nightclubs and into the street.

"When I first moved here, there were a lot of hamburger places, pizza places," said Emily Pabarcus, who came in 1987 to attend the University of California at San Diego. Now, "when you go downtown, you see blocks of Spanish restaurants, Thai, Italian, everything you can think of."

The same can be said of the people.

In 1980, whites made up almost 74 percent of the population, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. Since then, the percentage has dropped to about 62 percent, and the number of Hispanics has more than doubled.

Once almost entirely reliant on the military, San Diego's economy has continued to diversify in the wake of the recession and

defense cuts in the early 1990s. Three years after the economy bottomed out and the area lost nearly 60,000 jobs, employment has returned to prerecession levels with help from growing biotech and telecommunications firms. Qualcomm, the 11-year-old company that makes cellular phones that encrypt conversations for users, has hired 1,000 people in the past two months.

"It's just a real dynamic place," said retired Navy Capt. Ron Kennedy, who has lived in the area off and on since 1952. "Only people who don't live here think of it as a Navy town."

But in striving to become a world-class city, San Diego has lost a bit of its character, some residents say. When Emily Pabarcus' husband, Mike, was growing up in the early 1980s, his neighborhood sat beside a canyon where deer and coyote roamed. These days, adobe-style tract housing blankets many hillsides.

"You'll see a sign that says, 'Watch out for deer,' and it will be in the middle of a business complex with a freeway on one side and a major intersection on the other," said Mike Pabarcus, 26, a pharmaceutical company worker who is considering moving.

While many cheer for the economic recovery, skeptics say it is far from complete. Many of the new positions pay considerably less than the $60,000 engineering salaries that General Dynamics paid before leaving town.

Despite diversification, the military remains the second-largest industry in the region's $70 billion economy. And not a single Fortune 500 company calls San Diego home.

Golding refers to San Diego as the "first great city of the 21st century," but critics say local government hasn't taken the necessary steps to make that claim a reality.

For years, the city has needed to replace its small Lindbergh Field airport, but not-in-my-backyard opposition has blocked efforts.

While some in the city are reaching out to Mexico in hopes of developing greater social and economic ties, others would rather just build more fences.

"I don't think San Diego has a vision of where it's going," said Norris Clement, an economics professor at San Diego State University. "Frankly, we don't have the leadership that a Los Angeles, a San Francisco, a Seattle or even a Portland has had."

This week may be a test.

Although the convention represents a great opportunity, the heavy scrutiny carries risks. Some reporters have already grumbled about the size of the convention hall, where hundreds of seats have no view of the podium. The convention space, which has housed trade shows in the past, is only 27 feet high and has been likened to the hangar deck of an aircraft carrier.

What the facility lacks in size -- recent party convention venues have included basketball arenas and domed football stadiums -- it will make up for in intimacy, Ford said. And with hundreds of events scheduled outside the convention hall, he added, the city can rely to some extent on its beautiful setting.

In the past few days, San Diego has been at its best as sailboats cut across the bay beneath sunny skies and visitors jog along a path that winds around the water.

"It just looks so great," said former Mayor Roger Hedgecock in broadcast of his radio talk show outside the city's civic center. "I'm telling you, before anyone opens their mouth, we already have a successful convention."

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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