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San Marcos Goes to Town : Small Community Lays Big Plans Based on New University and City Hall


SAN MARCOS, Calif. — Ask the mayor of San Marcos where his burgeoning young town is headed, and he talks about getting his hands on a used monorail from Disneyland to link a new City Hall, now on the drawing board, and a new state university, also on the drawing board.

San Marcos, perhaps best known historically for its dairy farm, chicken ranch, rock quarry and wholesale nurseries, is quickly and clearly maturing. The town is like some skinny little country boy sprouting in his adolescence with signs of sophistication and brawn and a vision of what he's going to be when he grows up and moves off the farm.

"We've been a city waiting to happen," Mayor Lee Thibadeau says, "and now, we're finally happening."

If Thibadeau sounds like a rah-rah civic cheerleader, little wonder--given where the city's been and where it's going.

When San Marcos incorporated in 1963, the first City Hall was upstairs from the mayor's barber shop--plenty large enough during the first year of municipal autonomy to house the one and only city employee. The second--and current--City Hall is a modular building that previously was used as an Escondido bank office.

Even today there is no downtown, no shopping mall and no movie theater--and, some say, no clear civic identity. The community center is known, simply and appropriately, as The Barn, and that kind of says it all.

Hodgepodge development during the 1970s saw generally small and unspectacular housing tracts and apartment developments, strip commercial development and mom-and-pop manufacturing and industrial businesses housed in metal-sided buildings alongside California 78, which runs through the middle of town like an unwanted varicose vein.

But as other communities filled up, the outside world discovered San Marcos. Today it explodes with growth and development that gets Chamber of Commerce officials and real estate agents giddy.

Indeed, San Marcos was the fastest-growing city in San Diego County during the 1980s, nearly doubling in population from 17,479 residents in 1980 to 33,835 last January. That 93.6% population increase led North County's tumultuous growth in the '80s, which saw Carlsbad grow by 74.8%, Vista by 72.3% and Escondido by 53.8%.

And San Marcos is just now finding its stride.

* It is still only one-third developed, given a general plan that calls for an ultimate population of 110,000 residents. Just last year, the town's first master-planned residential community opened, and today there are plans at City Hall for thousands of new homes to be built during the next decade.

* Construction of a civic center, with a City Hall, county library and community center, is scheduled to begin next summer on a 59-acre parcel at Twin Oaks Valley Road and San Marcos Boulevard.

* Construction is to begin in the spring for the Cal State San Marcos campus, the first new state university to be built in 25 years. Ultimately, the campus is expected to attract as many students as San Diego State University, which, with 35,500 students, is the system's largest and which spawned the San Marcos campus because of its own successful North County satellite center.

* Having successfully developed a 60-acre retail warehouse center anchored by the Price Club, Home Club and Levitz Furniture--a retail complex so rich with sales-tax revenue that it pays 15% of the city's operating costs--the city now says it is ready for the ultimate stamp of successful suburbanhood: a shopping mall.

* The city already has spent more than $50 million in redevelopment funds during the last five years on a variety of public works improvements--and plans to spend another $323 million during the next five years, mostly to improve streets and flood control in addition to paying for the new civic center.

* City Hall staff members are working with local businesses in setting up employer-sponsored day-care centers and in encouraging employers to implement staggered working hours to reduce peak-time traffic congestion in town. At the same time, the city has paid for the installation of computer terminals in the deputy sheriff's cars that patrol the city to reduce the amount of in-station paper work, and joined the city of Vista in paying for a Sheriff's Department street-level narcotics enforcement team to target drug traffickers working the two cities.

* The city has endorsed the construction of a privately operated trash-burning power plant adjacent to a county garbage dump on the city's rural south side, arguing that the controversial project is environmentally and logistically more feasible than continued reliance on landfills.

All this, in a community that grew by snores and yawns during its first 115 years of existence.

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