San Diego, Qualcomm and a lesson for Seattle

Even prosperous West Coast cities can’t take their economic assets for granted.

I read with interest the story about fear and loathing in San Diego over the potential loss of Qualcomm to a merger.

When I was a young business journalist there in the 1980s, San Diego was a sleepy place — despite having a metro population of about 1.9 million. San Diego was great weather, the Navy, tourism and a bunch of tiny firms in office “parks,” presided over by the maternalistic (publisher Helen Copley) Copley Press.

The tuna fleet and canaries had decamped north to L.A. Convair, the giant military aircraft maker, was fading. San Diego was very expensive — always had been. They paid you in “sunshine dollars” — which, unfortunately, the grocery store and landlord didn’t accept.

One is tempted to say Qualcomm changed almost everything.

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Founded in 1985 but getting big in the ’90s, Qualcomm established itself as a leading innovator in telecom equipment and chips, especially for smartphones. In a city with no other Fortune 500 company besides the power company, it produced a huge footprint.

Not only that, but Qualcomm and co-founder Irwin Jacobs have been model civic stewards, as the article makes clear: “People here are so accustomed to everything that comes with being Qualcomm’s home that they’re having a hard time imagining the city without that distinction. But suddenly that’s the prospect they are confronting” with the potential acquisition by Broadcom.

If San Diego loses Qualcomm, the hole will be more than economic. But the city already punches below its weight. The Milken Institute’s Best-Performing Cities Index ranks it No. 51 (Seattle is No. 17). The Navy is still there (I wonder if the nukes are still in the bunkers on the Point Loma Peninsula?); the weather not yet…

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