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TIJUANA - Tijuana Innovadora highlights city's aspirations, potential

TIJUANA — This city of more than 1.6 million residents faces hefty challenges: too many hours spent at congested border crossings, too many unpaved roads, too few parks and too few police officers to meet the demands of a growing population and an economy strongly tied to San Diego County’s.

Still, Tijuana abounds with dreams and ambitions.

Construction has begun for a satellite city of close to 1 million residents. City officials are seeking federal funding for a tram route. A small but vibrant software cluster is taking root. The manufacturing of aerospace components and medical devices offers new hope to Tijuana’s maquiladora industry.

Business and government groups are campaigning to bring more U.S. patients to hospitals, doctors’ offices and dental clinics south of the border.

For the next two weeks, the city’s possibilities will be taking center stage at Tijuana Innovadora, a wide-ranging conference that includes talks by notable personalities such as Carlos Slim, the world’s wealthiest person; the founders of Twitter and Wikipedia; and former Vice President Al Gore.

Today, Mexican President Felipe Calderón is expected to inaugurate the $5 million event, which the private sector is spearheading with hopes of polishing Tijuana’s image and drawing new investments.

Once the conference ends, the hard work of defining a long-term vision for the city and finding the resources to make it happen will continue. At stake is not just Tijuana’s future, but also San Diego County’s, said government, civic and business leaders on both sides of the border.

“To the extent that Tijuana is successful, San Diego will benefit from that success,” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency.

Tijuana’s promoters are eager to boost economic relations with San Diego, but they’re also looking for ways to decrease the city’s heavy dependence on U.S. investment by, for example, exploring alternative markets such as China. Tijuana and border cities have suffered more than other parts of Mexico during economic downturns in the United States.

“What’s natural for our region is anything that is connected with Asia and California,” said Fernando Otañez, president of Tijuana’s Business Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of the city’s major business organizations.

He and other business leaders stress the need for a stronger entrepreneurial class and better-paid, higher-quality jobs. But two economic crises in the past decade have stalled efforts to bring more high-tech industries to the city, said Alfredo Hualde, a sociologist at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

The U.S. economy is one of numerous external factors with powerful influence over Tijuana’s future. Demand for illicit drugs north of the border finances drug gangs perpetrating much of the violence in the city.

Poverty elsewhere in Mexico brings many migrants to the city in search of jobs. Increased security measures at border crossings since 9/11 has led to lengthy wait times that stifle business on both sides.

The latest battle has been over Mexico’s new federal regulation restricting cash deposits of U.S. dollars in Mexican banks, a measure against money laundering that Tijuana’s business sector say fails to take into account the reliance on dollars in border cities.

“Centralist policies leave us with our hands tied,” Otañez said.

Ultimately, Tijuana’s leaders said the city must forge its own future through will and ingenuity.

Increasing infrastructure is a fundamental step, said Mayor Jorge Ramos, whose administration has pushed forward major projects such as the $130 million repaving of the city’s main roads with long-lasting hydraulic concrete.

“We need to sustain the intensity of development,” he said.

Here are Tijuana’s gains and goals in four critical areas:


Tijuana planners envision 40 major projects over the next few years, ranging from redeveloping the downtown area to creating a municipal energy plan to building a satellite city at Valle de las Palmas.

To meet immediate infrastructure needs, city administrator Manuel Guevara said Tijuana would need about $960 million for projects such as paving new roads, building new parks and improving public lighting.

Developing a transportation system is a high priority, and two major transportation routes are being planned: a 10.5-mile tram leading from the San Ysidro crossing to eastern Tijuana and a 13.5-mile bus route from the Otay Mesa border crossing to the city’s southern end.

The city is negotiating for a $96 million federal subsidy to offset the $280 million price tag for these two projects, and it would invite companies willing to pay an upfront cost for construction in exchange for making a long-term profit.

Guevara said Tijuana ultimately needs 10 such transportation routes.

Human capital

Compared with the rest of Mexico, Tijuana’s population is relatively young, said demographer Marie-Laure Coubès at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Like most northern border cities, its educational level is lower than that of other Mexican urban areas, she said, as many students drop out to find work.

The Tijuana Strategic Plan, being developed jointly by the city and the private sector, calls for changes in the educational system beginning at the elementary school level, with mandatory English classes and more math training. Then students should be oriented toward careers starting in junior high. At the university level, “it is urgent to reorient vocations” to the demands of the job market, the plan states.

“They have a workforce that’s fairly hungry to work,” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments. “Can you train them and get them to produce high value-added products, or do they produce low value-added products? That’s the debate in terms of the future.”

Public safety

Under the current mayor, Tijuana has spent close to $350 million on its police department — for salaries, training, uniforms and equipment. Last month, the force vacated its antiquated downtown offices for a $7.4 million command center in the industrial Mesa de Otay district.

The most crucial change in recent years has been the unprecedented purging of the police department: More than 600 officers suspected of corruption have resigned or been ousted from the force since December 2007. The force now has about 2,000 officers, but the city’s public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola, has said it needs 5,000.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has highlighted Tijuana as a success story in his country’s military-led battle against organized crime. While Tijuana’s residents celebrate the recent drop in “high-impact” crimes such as public shootouts and beheadings, the city’s overall homicide rate is higher than last year’s. Authorities said many of the latest killings occur between small-scale drug vendors.

Cross-border ties

Tijuana’s political, financial and civic leaders say renewing close business, educational and cultural relations with San Diego County is essential to the city’s progress.

Binational collaboration has faltered in recent years, and border crossings have dropped — the result of heightened U.S. security measures, a prolonged economic downturn and Mexico’s drug violence.

A study by the San Diego Association of Governments estimates that difficulties in crossing the border costs the regional economy $4 billion annually.

“People have forgotten that this cross-border relationship is worth tens of billions in trade and economic growth,” said Larry Herzog, a city-planning professor at San Diego State University.

“People talk about Tijuana and forget that 10 or 15 years ago, it was San Diego-Tijuana.”

Info provided by SANDRA DIBBLE (signon San Diego)

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