S.D. County's Cities Defy The Negatives, Accent The Positives

Times Staff Writer

It used to be that civic leaders, in the name of community pride, simply dismissed warped stereotypes of their hometowns.

Stress the positive, they said, rather than dwell on the negative. Ignore it if outsiders think that Oceanside is a crime-ridden, rowdy Marine city with a garish and tacky downtown.

Or that Santee is populated by cowboys driving jacked-up pickups and Bible-thumping fundamentalist right-wingers.

Can anyone really believe that Chula Vista is an impoverished eyesore, nothing more than a garbage dumping ground, or that National City is overrun by unsightly industrial plants and rife with unemployment?

As competition to lure prestigious commercial and residential development has increased in San Diego County, cities like Oceanside and Chula Vista have taken stock of their reputations and come to realize that such negatives were hurting them.

It is increasingly common these days for communities in San Diego County to acknowledge their questionable reputations and hire professional consultants to improve them. Some cities have hired full-time city employees to stamp out the stereotypes and improve the image of the city.

"Like it or not, a city has to realize it when it has a negative image, and come to grips with the problem if it hopes to improve itself," said Dolores Davies, an account executive with the Gail Stoorza public relations firm commissioned by Oceanside to improve that city's image.

"Many of the cities in San Diego County find themselves now in heavy competition to attract prestigious companies, developers building higher-priced homes and residents to live in those homes," Davies said. "And those negative images outsiders have of your community really are going to hurt the city's chances of achieving those goals.

"The flip side is that a place like Carlsbad or Del Mar doesn't have to worry about this at all. Their images are their best selling points."

Some cities have been able to enhance their images without hiring professional firms.

When Poway incorporated in 1980, it was best known for Poway Road, a lengthy thoroughfare of fast-food restaurants, car lots and other strip developments with a reputation for about the worst traffic jams in the county.

Its newly-elected City Council was unanimous in its vision of a future Poway graced by luxurious custom homes, wide open spaces and prestigious businesses. Among its first actions was to coin a slogan that fit that future--"The City in the Country."

But cities with more serious image concerns have tackled the problem more aggressively.

Oceanside's previous attempts to mold its image included a large billboard off Interstate 5 proclaiming, "We Oceanside." Thousands of drivers see it daily but it has become tattered and is sometimes covered with graffiti, reinforcing the city's tarnished reputation.

The problem was considered so serious that Oceanside even considered changing its name to wipe its slate clean.

"The leaders in Oceanside were pretty sure that outsiders had a very negative image of their city," Davies said. "Quite honestly, the broad picture you'd paint of the community is one of a rowdy, dangerous Marine town with a high crime rate.

"The impression is a strong one built up over a long period of time, and it's not going to be changed overnight. There are a lot of variables that go into this problem."

Oceanside became especially image-conscious, Davies said, when it embarked on an ambitious redevelopment plan intended to change the face of a tawdry downtown that is a mini-Times Square by the sea.

Those plans are stalled because developers have not been willing to make a significant investment in the city and Davies finds herself in something of a Catch-22 as she addresses her challenge.

"It's kind of the old cart-before-the-horse routine," she said. "I want to stress the good things about the city and redevelopment is my best selling point. But it's tough to improve the image until the redevelopment starts, and it might not take shape until the image is improved.

"It's a slow process, but the developers of choice real estate have to be bombarded with information about our coastal properties and the potential they hold. We can show them that crime is down and that the Marines really are not a bad problem. If we are successful and one developer makes a commitment, we'll have turned the situation around."

Oceanside followed a trend begun in San Diego County by Chula Vista when it hired a public relations firm in 1981. Two years ago, Chula Vista went a step further, assigning a city official to concentrate full time on the image problem.

Derisively called "Chulajuana" by many, the county's second largest city plans an ambitious waterfront development and is blessed with an abundance of open land on which it hopes to build an upscale, planned residential community known as Eastlake.

"Our efforts have been motivated by the desire to bring in quality development and it's safe to say that the point of view within the city is that to reach that goal, it needs a new image," said Mark Cox, the city's public information officer charged with changing the stereotypical view of Chula Vista.

"The common image of the place is one with a lot of cheap businesses and environmental problems. It's especially acute because you get a terrible first impression of Chula Vista if you see it from Interstate 5, as most people do. All you see from the freeway is debris and garbage and deteriorated marshland."

That negative impression is frustrating, Cox said. Although downtown Chula Vista has undergone a massive face lift, not many outsiders realize it. Attractive residential and commercial buildings have sprouted in the last several years, making downtown Chula Vista the showplace of the South Bay.

"We've been very successful downtown and we have to let people know that," Cox said. "It shows where our future commitment is. People are surprised when they see our downtown and inevitably they'll say it's the kind of downtown they'd expect to see in North County. Let's face it--all of South Bay has a negative reputation. But we're proud of the transition we're making. This isn't the same city it was 10 years ago and we aren't afraid to let people know that."

Cox said he expected other cities to follow the trend of directing public relations in-house. "It eliminates the middle man," he said. "A lot of public relations involves quick reaction. I can react more quickly than the public relations person because I don't have to get up to speed on issues within the city."

Neighboring National City recently hired the Stoorza firm and assigned a city employee to work on public relations. "We aren't sure what shape its campaign will take but it's going to be the same painful process of spelling out the problems and then deciding to deal with them," Davies said.

In East County, Santee leaders make no secret of their ambition to change their city's image. The key to its future is the development of the ambitious San Diego River Plan, which would create a myriad recreational and commercial opportunities for the city. But like Chula Vista, it must convince quality developers that it is a good investment to build in their city.

If ever a community presented the ultimate challenge to a public relations specialist, it is San Ysidro. The beleaguered border community has a negative national reputation after an excruciating year that included the McDonald's massacre and a scathing depiction in "Lines and Shadows," the best seller by Joseph Wambaugh.

The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce plans to hire the Tom Gable Agency to plan a public relations campaign. Gable, mindful of San Ysidro's poor reputation, "won't gloss over the problems, because in this case it's impossible," he said. "Fluff doesn't cut it. You certainly don't volunteer information about the border bandits in the Wambaugh book, but you lose credibility if a potential developer asks about it."

Gable said San Ysidro must come to terms with its niche in the county's economic and social structure. "We wouldn't expect a Hyatt Regency there, for example," he said. "But we could get a machine shop built. We can stress the fact that there is low-priced industrial land and affordable, decent housing that is more economical here than perhaps anywhere else in the county.

"We'll deal with the crime problem head-on, by taking the offensive and pointing out the crime-prevention measures in the community.

"It's all a question of taking control of your own destiny, rather than letting the impressions of outsiders determine your future."

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