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— With narco-related violence raging in Tijuana and beginning to cross over into San Diego, a big real estate project along the Mexican border -- complete with conference center, hotel, swimming pool, and a shopping center -- might not seem exactly a solid bet. But the man behind the multibillion-dollar real estate outfit that just took over the so-called San Ysidro International Gateway project has some recent hands-on exposure to Latin America's drug wars. Forty-eight-year-old Joseph Robert, who founded J.E. Robert Cos. of McLean, Virginia, about 20 years ago, is said to have made his billions by investing in distressed properties dumped by the government during the nation's savings-and-loan debacle. Earlier this month, according to a report in last week's Washington Post, Robert joined James Kimsey, cofounder and chairman emeritus of America Online, on an unorthodox journey into the jungles of Colombia. The goal of the trip, sanctioned by Colombian president Andres Pastrana, was to persuade Marxist rebels linked to the drug trade there to stop fighting, become capitalists, and go into business. Although the U.S. State Department tried to talk the men out of their mission, according to the Post, Kimsey and Robert sat down on March 3 in the jungle camp of Revolutionary Armed Forces leader Manuel Marulanda. They pitched him on giving up the drug trade, as well as the extortion and kidnapping he's infamous for. Did entrepreneurial power prevail? The jury is still out, Kimsey and Robert told the Post, though Marulanda did declare that "communism is dead."

I Want My Dumb TV

TV station owners all over the country are trying to figure out what to make of all the new digital-television options flooding the market. Techies envision everything from high-definition TV to so-called "smart" set-top boxes that would allow instant polling and viewer play-along game shows. And though San Diego is said to be one of America's most tech-savvy Web markets, at least one local television executive wants no part of it. Mike McKinnon, owner of KUSI, Channel 51, told a recent meeting of TV-management gurus that he won't be the first to deploy the fancy digital systems being touted by the likes of Microsoft and AOL. In the San Diego market, McKinnon said, "I'm going to be the No. 3 or No. 4 guy in digital. I want the other guys to get an arrow in the back." According to the account of the meeting run by Communications Daily, McKinnon added ruefully, "My piece of the pie is getting smaller" ... At least one local firm is getting some mileage out of the high oil prices. Tomen Power, which makes windmills to generate electrical power, is a partner in a new venture to build 100 wind turbines on Sevenmile Hill near Rawlins, Wyoming.

Missing in Action

San Diego Library Commissioner Mary Walshok, named by lame-duck mayor Susan Golding to become commission chairperson and push for a new downtown library, has been absent from about 40 percent of commission meetings over the last two years, according to a review of the group's minutes. Walshok runs UCSD's extension programs... U.C. Regents have approved that new Lowe Enterprises hotel and conference center at UCSD. At the same meeting, the regents, who include San Diego's John Davies and John Moores, signed off on some record salaries for UC bigwigs, including $172,000 for Peter R. Taylor, deputy director for computational science and scientific computing, San Diego Supercomputer Center. Other fat UC salaries awarded include $280,000 to Michael V. Drake, M.D., vice president, health affairs, Office of the President, and $200,000 for Alex M. Saragoza, vice president, educational outreach. Michael S. Thomas, associate director for strategic planning, San Francisco campus, was awarded a $210,000 salary. Joseph P. Mullinix, senior vice president, business and finance, picked up $270,000 ... Ex-pro football player Bob Thomas, who once kicked briefly for the Chargers back in 1985, has won the Republican primary for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. Thomas, who became famous in Illinois when he played for the Chicago Bears after being cut by the Chargers, was endorsed by his ex-coach, Mike Ditka.

Contributor: Matt Potter

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