May 4, 2001

Chairman of the Port Commission Keeps Watch Over Imperial Beach

By Yvette tenBerge

Residents of, and visitors to, Imperial Beach know all about the metamorphosis that this small, coastal community has undergone in the past few years. Many people who do not frequent the area may still know it as the "place with dirty water" due to the amount of contamination that often spills into it's ocean from Tijuana; however, the community has made, and is still in the process of making, vast improvements. These improvements come in the form of a few, pricey additions that locals believe to be responsible for having transformed their beach front from a stomping ground for disruptive drunks into a relaxing haven for neighborhood families.

Guests of the Pier Plaza, located in the heart of the boardwalk, can now take a stroll through a small art gallery, treat themselves to a scoop of homemade ice cream or sit on one of the small, multi-colored benches shaped like a surfboard while they watch their children ride bright, red seals in a mini-playground. While this is a very noticeable improvement over the Imperial Beach of years past, what first catches the eye of most people is a large, acrylic and steel sculpture that serves as a gateway to the boardwalk. Purple, yellow, orange and pink structures molded into the shape of surfboard tips provide the plaza with an aura of festivity that is found at all popular boardwalks.

Glance at the nondescript plaque to the left of this sculpture and you will find the name of the public entity (an organization established for the public by the government to manage public lands) that foots the bill for this extensive renovation and for its maintenance. It is the Port Commission of San Diego. What is not listed on the plaque, though, is the name of the Commission's Chairman, Frank Urtasun, the Imperial Beach native who many small business owners credit with having supplied the backing needed to help turn this once slightly sagging town into an area that gains vitality with each new addition.

When asked why he sought to become the chair of the wealthiest public entity in San Diego, Mr. Urtasun cites a very good, professional reason. "I have done my best in life to pick assignments where I felt I could make a difference. Many people felt I should run for mayor, but what we have [in Imperial Beach] is a highly politically charged community with minimal community resources. On the other hand, the Port Commission has the resources and the muscle to make things happen," says Mr. Urtasun, sitting in his stark, but functional office at the Port Commission building. As usual, he adeptly juggles several things at once, proof-reading and signing letters as he speaks. "In the time that I have been with the Port Commission, we have managed to redo the entire beach front of Imperial Beach, a project with about a $15 million infrastructure."

The Port Commission of San Diego is a government entity that was created in 1962 in order to manage San Diego harbor, operate Lindbergh Field and administer the public lands along San Diego Bay. It is governed by a seven member board of Port Commissioners. The City Council of each member community of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City nominates one board member to represent its interests. The remaining three commissioners are appointed by the San Diego City Council. Each of the seven board members is appointed to serve a four year term and the position of chairman lasts for one year of those four. The Board's job is to establish policies under which the Port's staff conduct their daily operation.

When pressed further on the issue of why he set his sights on the chairmanship, Mr. Urtasun admits that he also had one, very personal reason. He is the son of Spanish-speaking immigrants who, along with thousands of other Mexican families, made their living by toiling in the tuna canneries of Barrio Logan. With a look of pride on his face, he recalls the unflagging dedication that his parents displayed in their efforts to "scrape together enough pennies to buy" a home in Imperial Beach in 1960. "This really is the country of opportunity when the son of immigrant laborers can one day rise to lead the organization for which his parents once worked. It truly shows you that anything is possible."

Along with serving on the Board of the Port Commission for the past nine years and currently holding the title of Chairman, Mr. Urtasun's 19 year career with San Diego Gas & Electric has earned him the title of Binational Affairs Manager. This position allows Mr. Urtasun to maintain his fluency in Spanish, the language he mastered because his parents forbade him to speak English in the home, and allows him the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the world. Despite the fact that this work-load would prove heavy for anyone, Mr. Urtasun has also involved himself in the construction industry, building both single and multi-family, residential projects.

By the look of the adult Mr. Urtasun's accomplishments, there is no doubt that the little boy who grew up in a very simple, three bedroom home in a low income section of Imperial Beach took his mother's lessons on the importance of education and hard work to heart. A self-described "average student" in high school, Mr. Urtasun's success would have been difficult for many to predict. He credits growing up in poverty, as well as the example set by his mother, Isabel Urtasun, with instilling the fire in his belly which lit his path.

"Even though [my sisters and I] had a great upbringing, we grew up poor. This motivated me and made me aggressive," says Mr. Urtasun, pausing to remember the time when, at the age of 12, his father was required to stop working as a warehouseman due to a medical disability. His mother, who already worked eight-hour days on her feet, became the sole earner in the family. "Watching my mother carry the whole household load on her shoulders without ever once complaining really showed me what one person could accomplish."

This aggressive attitude led him to "get serious" and start college just three days after graduating from high school and then carried him through Southwestern Community College and San Diego State University. As a result of this ambition, and due to all of his hard work, Mr. Urtasun was award-ed the coveted Honorary Degree from Southwestern College in 1996 and was recognized as one of the top 100 graduates by SDSU in 1997. Mr. Urtasun has also taken this attitude with him to the Port Commission, where he has pinpointed more than 10 projects that he plans either to have completed or to have in the works by the time his year as Chairman is over in January, 2002.

"I always set an aggressive agenda, which is often a controversial approach. I find that, if you limit yourself to accomplishing a few goals, you do not push yourself as much as you would if you set your sights higher," says Mr. Urtasun, who becomes noticeably charged as he speaks about his list of goals. "If you set ten goals for yourself, you may not capture all of them, but capturing seven is better than capturing three."

In keeping with Mr. Urtas-un's philosophy, the phrase he has chosen to set the tone of his year as Chairman of the Port Commission is "A Port With No Borders." This is a theme that he hopes will encourage people to see that the San Diego port serves all of the residents of the region of San Diego, even those who live in areas beyond the boundaries of its five member cities. Among the projects on his list are: a plan to move forward on a 10-gate expansion on the Pacific Highway, a commitment to waterfront improvements, a push to get the Commission to approve a major upgrade for the Cruise Ship Program (a new, state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly cruise terminal) and an attempt to establish a "Port With No Borders Foundation" which will work as a non-profit organization and raise college scholarships for local students interested in pursuing careers in hospitality management, environmental studies, international trade, public administration or city planning.

It is this last mentioned goal's focus on the young people of San Diego that touches on a segment of the population that is dear to Mr. Urtasun's heart. "At times, I go back to schools and talk to kids, but I go alone, without any cameras or press. I do not think that these children appreciate the magnitude of what I am saying or the amount of work it has taken me to get were I am today. If I had to name a hero of my own, it would be Edward James Ol-mos, a man who is driven by extending his hand down to kids and pulling them up," says Mr. Urtasun, laughing as he confesses that the majority of the kids with whom he speaks most often want to know how much money he makes.

His face becomes serious before continuing. "I believe there is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with being successful, so I have worked with my own two kids, as well as with kids who are not my own. I grew up in a neighborhood where only one or two families were Mexican," says Mr. Urtasun. "Did I feel different or inferior, you bet I did, but my mother told me something that I try to pass along. `You have got to be proud of who you are and what you are.'"

Thanks to the amount of polishing that has gone on in Imperial Beach since Mr. Urtasun has served on the Board of the Port Commission, residents of the little community can now be proud of their own, sparkling waterfront.

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