Opinion: Our once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize Chula Vista

Chula Vista center
Chula Vista center. Photo by Chris Stone

A new day is approaching in Chula Vista. Our current mayor is retiring after serving our community well, we are changing from a pandemic to an endemic one where businesses and schools will remain open, and once in a generation we have the opportunity to rebuild our city stronger than ever with new ones management.

Like so many of us who grew up in Chula Vista, my story is shaped by people like you: A loving community of neighbors, teachers, community leaders, and family members who worked hard to give my generation a better life. My vision for Chula Vista comes from seeing our city through the eyes of working families, like my.

I was born in East San Diego County and raised in Chula Vista by my mother, a child of Mexican immigrants. Growing up with a single parent, we lived on both sides of the 805s, searching across West and East Chula Vista for housing we could afford. I worked as a janitor and gardener at Eastlake Community Church while attending Eastlake High School to help make ends meet.

My mother and mentors inspired me to graduate from Southwestern College and San Diego State University and pursue a life of service. What began as a community organizing job in Chula Vista turned into an opportunity that would change my life – working for President Barack Obama in the White House. After the White House, I served as head of the U.S. Spanish Chamber of Commerce, where I spoke for small businesses, and as a federal official at the U.S. Department of Labor who served working families like the ones I grew up with.

It is from this unlikely journey that I write to you today and humbly ask for your support as the next mayor of our city.

As the third generation of Chula Vistan and small business owner, I offer new leadership to a city on the brink of new opportunities as we hopefully transition into a post-pandemic economy. A new development by the bay and new university that will free up new industries, jobs, housing opportunities and new income to invest in long-neglected services like our roads, public safety, schools, housing, homelessness and small businesses.

Ammar Campa-Najjar with President Obama. Campaign photo

We do not get there by reusing the same career politicians who for decades have failed to deliver long-awaited projects. We can not wait 20 more years for these opportunities, we need a new mayor who has the energy to work hard, deliver results and meet this moment with a vision to innovate and rejuvenate Chula Vista from Broadway to 3rd Avenue, Otay Ranch to Millenia, east to west of 805.

Chula Vista’s population is approaching 300,000, compared to San Diego’s nearly 1.5 million. Chula Vista’s operating budget is $ 475 million a year, while San Diego City’s is $ 4.6 billion. Why is a city only five times our size ten times our city budget? One big reason is that Chula Vistans commute to San Diego every day to work, shop and eat.

We are a bedroom community with a housing problem, and an even bigger problem when it comes to keeping our residents spending dollars in Chula Vista – much less attracting the rest of the county to invest here. The daily drainage of VAT from Chula Vista to San Diego is a big part of why we have a small city budget for our growing city and why our mayor expects our city to be millions of dollars in debt in the years to come.

How do we get more Chula Vistans, and the region for that matter, to use, shop and play in Chula Vista? Here is part of my master plan to make Chula Vista a self-sustaining city with the public facilities of a growing city with a small city heart:

$ 1.3 billion Bayfront development

The Bay Front, if properly maximized, will revitalize West Chula Vista, boost local businesses with new customers from across the region, and serve as a launching pad for “blue technology” innovation and “new collar” jobs. I would like to see us build a wind-powered desalination plant to provide clean water and energy to the residents, which is carbon and cost neutral.

And without raising taxes, the economic activity generated by the bay will generate $ 11.5 million in annual revenue. This will enable our city to invest in long-neglected services to address homelessness, hiring the extra public security staff we desperately need, weather repairs, youth services and hiring full-time fellows to help our city compete and secure external funding for ambitious future projects such as a university, stadium, airport, high-speed train and other public facilities to make Chula Vista a bi-national, self-sustaining, neighborhood-focused city.

South Bay University

A university in the East Chula Vista Innovation District will create a pipeline of highly qualified talent, attract new industries and deliver research and development that will enable us to lead in a changing world. Imagine if our new university was at the forefront of addressing climate change by researching and developing studies and solutions to clean up the Tijuana River Valley, address transboundary air pollution, and expand environmentally friendly technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage.

Bi-national, cross-border trade

Many international business leaders live in Chula Vista but do business elsewhere. We can become the economic epicenter of a 7 million binational megaregion – ranging from South Bay San Diego to Baja California – and attract more international trade. Unlimited possibilities if we take advantage of our residents’ unique cultural and business ties, our budding biotechnological and traditional industries, with a state-of-the-art university that serves as a hub for innovation, art and commercial activity.

Sports arena / stadium

This is the most ambitious of all plans, but if the Bay Front will act as the first domino to top and create momentum for a university, it’s easy to imagine the pool of talented bi-national athletes that our Chula Vista University would attract. It would only be a matter of time before this university would develop a competitive football or soccer team, which would then create a demand for a sports arena or stadium.

I wanted to do a feasibility study to transform the amphitheater into a fully functioning stadium that can house large sports teams, symphonies and concerts. We will need to rebuild surrounding infrastructure and create roads to facilitate access for residents. I would also explore building the stadium further east in Chula Vista at the current Olympic training center, which will already play a leading role at the 2028 Olympics.

The revenue collected from the bay front, the university and the sports arena would provide our city with resources to finally make serious progress with long-term problems, such as

Housing

There are only three ways to solve our city’s housing problem: Build more housing, rent control, which I think will drive investors away and add spot to damage, or increase residents’ purchasing power by attracting well-paying industries to our city. My approach will be focused on investing in options one and three.

We can increase the housing stock by converting ghost parking spaces into affordable middle-class housing, two-story apartments into denser housing in middle and high-rise buildings, lower costs for ADUs and build more workforce housing for teachers, police, firefighters, and other public workers, so they can have a personal share in the communities they serve.

Public safety

Chula Vista has been ranked among the 10 safest cities in the United States. Yet we have seen crime on the rise in recent years. My economic growth plan will allow us to invest in making our neighborhoods safer by reducing road development traffic, tackling homelessness, hiring 40 well-trained police officers to reduce crime, and providing fair pay to firefighters. We can also fund additional senior services for the elderly and programs to empower our youth and get lethal drugs like fentanyl off our streets and away from our children.

Transport

No growing, modernizing city is complete without efficient public transportation. There has been much debate as to whether the geography of our state is conducive to underground high-speed trains, or whether the above-ground model adopted around the UTC area is more feasible.

When it comes to Chula Vista, my ultimate goal is to develop transportation that will connect our city and encourage use by riders across all income levels. I do not support the expansion of half-goal approaches to public transportation in Chula Vista such as inefficient bus routes or low-speed carriages, which only three percent of San Diegans drive around the entire county. Efficient public transportation like Bay Area’s BART, New York City Subway or Washington DC Metro are the models we should strive for.

Revitalization of shopping malls

The Chula Vista Center Mall was built in 1961 as “one of the nation’s earliest regional malls.” This historic location has attracted people like the world-renowned boxing superstar Canelo Álvarez, who is starting a taco restaurant in the area. We can revitalize this mall to become an epicenter of bi-national retail and Mexican cuisine by strengthening Latino-owned neighborhood markets and selective brand names to preserve the authentic culture of ancient Chula Vista that makes us a regional attraction. This effort will attract customers around the region and the country, bring in more VAT and help our city flourish.

On the east side, I would urge the empty Albertsons in San Miguel to use or lose its lease for other grocery stores like the Northgate Market to bid. Breathe new life into the Otay Ranch Mall, which I believe a new university close by will help achieve.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this exciting vision for Chula Vista. I have spoken to advocates for business and the labor market, university leaders and development experts, lifelong residents and young families in hopes of making Chula Vista their eternal home.

I give my whole heart and soul to Chula Vista. I run to use my experiences and relationships to build partnerships to improve our city’s economy and way of life. I stand up because I believe in the transformative power of turning our collective pain into a collective purpose, of building a loved community where everyone feels a sense of belonging. Where every child, regardless of their circumstances, has the love and support they need to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.

That was what Chula Vista gave me as the son of an immigrant, a single parent, and a working-class child with dreams of helping change the world – that’s the city I hope to build for your children as mayor.

Ammar Campa-Najjar is running for mayor of Chula Vista. If elected, he would be the first Latin Arab American to hold an election office in the United States.

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