North County Cities Strut Their Stuff to Woo SDSU Campus

Times Staff Writer

Like proud schoolchildren preparing for their first open house, city officials throughout North County have begun gearing up to market their respective municipalities in an effort to become the region’s newest college town.

The campaign began in earnest last week, only days after Gov. George Deukmejian signed a measure allocating $250,000 for a feasibility study to determine whether North County needs a San Diego State University campus and, if so, where it should be built.

Now, with visions of university prestige dancing in their heads, civic leaders are mulling public-relations strategies, negotiating with owners of suitable sites and composing lists of possible perquisites designed to persuade state university officials that the campus belongs on their turf.


As the most eager competitors see it, snaring the $40-million, 300- to 400-acre campus would be the ultimate civic coup. As public institutions, state universities pay no taxes, but they do stimulate cultural and intellectual enrichment in their host communities and boost patronage of local businesses.

In addition, campuses enhance a city’s ability to lure high-tech industries seeking the research opportunities and skilled employees that a college provides. Then there’s the prestige factor. As one mayor put it, a university “is the essential component. It gives a town class. It makes a town count.”

Initially, the SDSU branch, designed to alleviate crowding at the main campus on Montezuma Mesa, would offer only upper-division courses (for juniors and seniors) in order to avoid duplicating the efforts of North County’s community colleges, Palomar and MiraCosta. But by early next century, it would expand into a four-year institution enrolling more than 10,000 students.

Be it two-year or four-year, upper-division or lower-division, several North County communities want the campus--and are ready to go to the mat in the competition for it.

So far, the pulse is by far the quickest in San Marcos, the city that now hosts both Palomar College and San Diego State’s existing North County presence--a tiny, Spartan storefront center in an industrial park next to a furniture store off California 78.

“It’s going to be in our town,” said Councilman Lee Thibadeau, the chief SDSU booster. “It’s already been decided. We just have to tell the university.”

That’s boastful talk, but Thibadeau insists that he has reason to be confident. City officials have identified a centrally located, 600-acre site for the campus, and Thibadeau said the parcel’s owners have agreed to scrap plans for a residential development and do business with the university instead.

Furthermore, San Marcos leaders have hinted that they may be willing to use redevelopment money to finance public improvements at the campus site--roads, storm drains and the like. There has even been talk of arranging a land donation for the university.

“Basically, we’re willing to turn somersaults to get them here,” Thibadeau said, adding that the city will soon launch a public-relations assault and “lobby anyone and everyone to make sure this becomes a reality.”

Mayor Lionel Burton said San Marcos already has the edge in the battle for the campus because, “We’ve got a site, we’re smack in the middle of North County with good freeway access . . . (and) We’re a progressive, avant-garde city--just the spot for a university on the cutting edge of learning.”

San Marcos may be the most zealous competitor, but the race to be chosen as host of the campus has other worthy contenders.

Escondido Mayor Ernie Cowan said officials in his city would be “very aggressive in our efforts” to land the branch campus, which he called “a big, prestigious plum--maybe the biggest of the decade--for whichever community gets it.”

Cowan said that as “the economic hub of North County,” Escondido makes sense as a college site and “is also the perfect location in terms of serving future students along the Interstate 15 corridor and from southern Riverside County,” where the bulk of the region’s population growth is forecast.

Further, City Manager Vernon Hazen noted that Escondido’s job market and wide range of housing for students, professors and support workers make it “the logical choice.” Hazen speculated that his city’s ambitious plans for a $52-million cultural arts center--to be built on the same schedule as the campus--would catch the eye of university scouts.

Cowan said that, within the next few weeks, he plans to discuss with his council colleagues various incentives Escondido might offer to state university officials.

“It’s time for us to sit down, perhaps with our Economic Development Commission or the chamber, and map out a strategy to get them to Escondido,” Cowan said. “Personally, I’d be very willing to see us make some generous offers in the way of incentives.”

In addition to offering city-financed public improvements similar to those on the table in San Marcos, Escondido might be able to arrange the donation of a site or provide one at “a very attractive price by swapping surplus city land” for an appropriate, privately owned parcel, Cowan said.

The mayor said that negotiations are under way with owners of several sites on the outskirts of Escondido but he declined to identify the properties.

Although officials in Vista say they are equally eager to become SDSU’s northern home, they admit they are limited in terms of the type of package they can assemble to woo the university. Mayor Mike Flick said that unless voters approve a ballot measure creating a redevelopment agency in November, “we just don’t have anything to bargain with.”

“I’d love to see us lay out the cash or public improvements needed to bring in this tremendous asset, but I don’t see that happening without the redevelopment tool,” Flick said. “We don’t presently have the means to deal. If we get them, I’d like to see us use them aggressively.”

Vista, which hosts a National University campus on its eastern border, also may be hampered by its dearth of appropriate sites. Flick said that two properties--one in north Vista and the other on the southeastern border adjacent to the city’s industrial park--are available, but City Manger Morris Vance disagreed.

“The one site that would have been suitable has been divided and partially sold,” Vance said. “It’s difficult to see a location in Vista unless I’m totally overlooking it.”

On the western front, a somewhat more muted attitude toward the campus exists. Oceanside, home of MiraCosta Community College and North County’s largest city, does not appear to be in the running because it lacks an easily accessible, suitably sized site.

“There have been a few sites suggested out in the San Luis Rey Valley, but take a look at the geography and you’ll see that’s pretty far from Escondido and Solana Beach for a student to drive,” Councilman John MacDonald said. “If the land were given without charge or something, then maybe a northeast Oceanside site would be acceptable. But otherwise, I don’t know.”

MacDonald, a former president of MiraCosta College, added that he believes the state university staff “should look for the site that best fits their location criteria and not get the communities into a bidding war. I’ve been through that before . . . and it gets very nasty. Sometimes, it means the campus ends up in the wrong place. I don’t want to see Oceanside involved in that.”

Still, last spring, a handful of Oceanside Chamber of Commerce officials made a bid of their own, suggesting that MiraCosta donate its existing site to SDSU and consolidate operations at a satellite center under construction in Cardiff. Officials from both colleges immediately rejected the proposal.

Carlsbad has at least one suitable site near its growing industrial area southeast of the intersection of Palomar Airport Road and El Camino Real. But Carlsbad officials aren’t quite sure that they want thousands of college students living in their town and clogging up their streets.

“We have some concerns about the traffic impacts, the housing impacts and the various costs of a university in terms of services and policing,” Assistant City Manager Frank Mannen said. “It would require a lot of work to integrate a full-blown academic campus into the community.”

Not only that, Councilman Richard Chick said, “It means taking 400 acres or more off the tax rolls.”

Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce officials say their support of the campus hinges on just what sort of campus it will be.

“If it’s just a storefront, or even just a plain academic campus, then I don’t think Carlsbad needs that kind of thing,” said Doug Yavanian, the chamber’s executive vice president. “We’d like something really high-caliber that supports the kind of high-tech activities we’re doing here.”

Determined to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of being host to San Diego State, the City Council has appointed a citizens’ committee to study the effects a campus would have on Carlsbad. A report will be presented in January.

While the results of the feasibility study will tell the official tale, few people in North County dispute the need for an expanded SDSU presence. Sen. William Craven (R-Oceanside), who authored the bill allocating money for the study, has been fighting to establish a full-fledged North County campus since the late 1960s, when he first realized the type of growth in store for the region.

In 1968, Craven tried to muster support for legislation creating a new campus, but failed. Ten years later, the senator was instrumental in securing a small state grant that enabled SDSU’s tiny North County Center to open.

Enrollment at that center (in San Marcos) has increased dramatically in recent years; the latest figures show a 79% increase over those for the fall semester last year. Population forecasts by the San Diego Assn. of Governments show that, in 15 years, almost 206,000 people of “college age"--which Sandag defines as between 20 and 39--will live in North County.

“The figures are clear,” said Richard Rush, director of the North County Center. “There is a growing need for higher education up here, and the main campus is bursting at the seams.”

In addition to the growth and obvious demand for an SDSU education, convenience is a major argument for a new campus. Today, course offerings at the fledgling center are few, and students in some majors must take occasional classes at the main campus in San Diego--nearly an hour’s drive from much of North County. There, they encounter and contribute to the school’s notorious traffic and parking problems.

A new branch would offer a wider range of disciplines and a full menu of support services--counseling, job placement and administration, for example.

The feasibility study, to be conducted by consultants hired by California State University officials, will survey North County demographics and will include a search for an appropriate site, said John Smart, deputy provost of the state university system.

Smart said the site selection study will evaluate a parcel’s proximity to areas expected to experience high growth, particularly growth of college-age population as opposed to retirement-age residents, and its location in relation to other educational institutions. He added that a site must be suitable for building, have room for expansion and be close to freeways and public transportation.

Offers of incentives such as donated land will be “given serious consideration by consultants of independent judgment,” Smart said. But he added, “It may be better to spend now to get the site that’s well-located as opposed to accepting a free site in a less desirable area.”

If all goes well, results of the study and a recommendation for a site and structure of the campus should be before California State University trustees for approval by next spring, Smart said. Planning of the campus could begin next summer and, at the earliest, its doors could open in 1990, Smart said.

First, however, the proposal would have to be endorsed by the Legislature, the California Post-Secondary Education Commission and the governor.

Meanwhile, officials in some North County cities are behaving as if construction of the campus in their hometown is a fait accompli.

“Who needs a study?” said Thibadeau of San Marcos. “We’ve got the ideal site, and we’ve got cooperative developers. All the marbles are in our corner. We’re ready to play.”

BB COLLEGE ENROLLMENT IN NORTH COUNTY MiraCosta College 7,443 National University 1,500 Palomar College 15,000*EB *Fall 1984