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."