Hom's advocacy and the merchants' petition prompted Centre City Development Corp. to conduct meetings last year, organize neighborhood tours, and earmark $1.3 million for such a project. After several sites were identified in Southeast San Diego, city council approved a rezoning that would accommodate fruit and vegetable distribution; but neighborhood residents protested that use.
John Armenta, a consultant hired last year by Centre City Development Corp., said the baseball stadium's destruction of an old business in a historic neighborhood might be a blessing in disguise. Many of San Diego's produce distributors need a modern terminal with properly sized storage space, loading docks, and truck bays, he said, noting the facility could spawn a truck stop, fueling station, hotel, and other commerce. "They're in such old buildings. I don't know how the health department lets them operate," said Armenta, a former manager of the Los Angeles Produce Market.
"San Diego is losing out. I never noticed that until I went down there to those meetings in San Diego." During his stay at a downtown hotel, Armenta asked a produce deliveryman where he was from, and the answer was Los Angeles. "Truckload after truckload of produce crosses the border from Mexico, comes up here to Los Angeles, and goes back to San Diego."
Local merchants estimate that Los Angeles distributors now supply about half of the produce consumed in San Diego. In the mid 1980s, annual sales by fruit and vegetable wholesalers countywide surpassed $300 million, according to a 1988 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Rivals have emerged from the so-called full-service companies, such as Alliant and Sysco, that sell all varieties of food along with produce. Many national supermarket and restaurant chains have eliminated local purchases of fruits and vegetables.
"The produce industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years. The competition is fierce in San Diego, and there's no cohesion among the local companies at all," said Dominic Moceri, president of Moceri Produce. "The big issue isn't that produce vendors are moving out of downtown. The big problem is that there are locally owned hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores that aren't supporting the local produce vendors. Some of these businesses are members of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and they're buying produce out of the Los Angeles market."
Given such fragmentation, Moceri questions the effectiveness of a large produce terminal in San Diego, but he is not opposed to the concept.
Redevelopment in the East Village probably represents the city's last chance to reclaim a business that's being lost to Los Angeles, say Tim Crabtree and Mohammad Zaidi, co-owners of Premier Produce Co. at 526 J Street. "San Diego is one of the nation's biggest cities. We have growing markets in the Imperial Valley and Mexico," Zaidi said. "We made it very clear that we need to be together and we need to be near downtown. Now people are going in different directions."
A year ago, Premier was optimistic that the city would help relocate the produce suppliers as a group. Now Premier is preparing to move to Chula Vista by year end. "There was a whole lot of lip service to pacify everyone," Crabtree said. "The city did nothing, and now it's too late."