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Cup Is No Place for Port District Funds : Race Can’t Win Against Bay Cities’ More Pressing Needs for Surplus

As owner of the county’s deepest pockets, the San Diego Unified Port District stands out among local government agencies like a rich uncle at a family gathering. While Imperial Beach faces outright bankruptcy and the city of San Diego prepares to slash park, library and arts funding to balance its budget, the Port District has an almost embarrassing $71.2 million in the bank.

Uncle’s bankroll has never escaped jealous notice, but interest in a share of the Port District’s wealth has grown recently. Last month, the five financially strapped cities surrounding San Diego Bay--Chula Vista, Coronado, National City, Imperial Beach and San Diego--asked for larger reimbursements for the police and fire protection and road maintenance they provide the Port District.

That request, which may total tens of millions of dollars, comes on top of other demands for Port District money: $300 million critically needed for expansion of overcrowded Lindbergh Field, untold millions more to clean up lead, mercury, DDT and PCBs polluting the bay, and a $200 million lawsuit from homeowners over noise at Lindbergh, to name just a few.

The latest outstretched palm belongs to the America’s Cup Organizing Committee, which recently asked the Port District to provide most of the $10 million in public funding needed for the 1992 race recently awarded to San Diego by the New York courts. Here’s where the Port Commissioners ought to draw the line, at least until they start spending significant sums on the other, more pressing public concerns.

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The commissioners have recognized the bay cities’ wholly legitimate demands, but a payment plan has yet to be developed. The Port District has begun the first phase of improvements to Lindbergh Field, a project that must receive high priority for years, if rapidly growing San Diego is to have even a barely functional airport through the end of the century. The bay cleanup is in the study stages.

The America’s Cup, described by its backers as one of the top three sporting events in the world, (along with the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup), undoubtedly will have a huge economic impact on the region. A 1987 study--now being updated--estimated that impact at $1.2 billion, including $369 million in spending from 2.5 million visitors. The event’s organizers say a multimillion-dollar contribution by the Port District--money that could, for example, build a Cup headquarters--would simply be a smart business investment, because the waterfront hotels and boatyards that are Port District tenants will directly benefit.

But those businesses will profit anyway. Visitors must stay somewhere, and the 15 or so yachts and their support teams will be a bonanza to the boatyards, restaurants and nautical equipment companies that will welcome them with open arms. Less clear is how much revenue the Port District will recapture in rent it imposes on the hotels.

When the city of San Diego spent $1.4 million in staff time and renovations to its stadium for the 1988 Super Bowl, its take of revenue from the event came to almost exactly the same amount.

In addition, the America’s Cup race off Point Loma remains inaccessible to most San Diegans, a sport that those who don’t own boats or rent space on excursion ships will watch on television--even as they endure the crowds drawn by the event.

For now, the Port District’s money seems better spent cleaning up the bay that will be home to the sleek racing yachts from around the world than to set up the race that will bring them here.


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