Booming sectors help San Diego shed its little sibling image

Leveraging a mix of new and traditional industries, the region is keen to show it has finally grown up.

America’s Finest City is coming into its own and opportunities abound for people who are tech-savvy and fashion forward.

David Hallisey, communications director at Petco, says the city he grew up in still retains its history, despite embracing a new identity.

"San Diego has evolved. Historically, it was a military and defense town," he adds, noting the city’s military prowess is still felt – more than 300,000 jobs in the area fall within the sector, according to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

Biotech has now made its mark to the point where "established companies and startups" call the area home, Hallisey notes. On the tech side, telecoms company Qualcomm is headquartered there, as are startups such as Shopventory, a cloud inventory software company, and online travel guide Citybot.

Cleantech, too, has been taking hold of the area in a big way. Jason Anderson, president and CEO of Cleantech San Diego, says factors such as a good grasp of the area’s natural resources and the fact that both businesses and communities were "early adopters of tech," contributed to the sector’s growth in the past few years.

There are more than 840 cleantech companies in the area, adds Anderson, and it boasts the most solar rooftops in the nation. Companies in the space include Enel Green Power and San Diego Gas & Electric. Expect that growth to continue, he adds. At the end of 2014, city officials ramped up their Climate Action Plan to eliminate half of all greenhouse gas emissions and aim for all electricity used to be from renewable sources by 2035.

Sand-and-surf allure
The travel and tourism sector also has a palpable presence in the city, as evidenced by PR pros’ tales of clear blue skies and consistent 70-degree temperatures.

Jamie Lynn Sigler, founding partner of J Public Relations, called travel and tourism "one of the major driving forces of the economy." The sector brings in $18.3 billion for the city and 160,000 jobs, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority.

The beach lifestyle sector is also growing, says Ali Grant, director at Be Social PR.

"A year ago, brands were saying, ‘I want to work with YouTube stars.’ That has shifted to collaborating with ‘general digital influencers,’" she adds.

Bordering Mexico, the city has always been home to a large Hispanic population – about 32% are Latino. However, Michael Olguin, president of Havas Formulatin, says: "We’re not seeing a lot of Hispanic firms opening. We’re seeing bilingual PR pros joining general market firms and leveraging their language skills and cultural insights to support campaigns targeting Hispanic consumers."

A San Diego home base can be an uphill battle for some firms, often misjudged as being "a bit sleepier or slower paced than the East Coast," continues Grant.

Sigler adds that the city is perceived as "still growing up," so while ideal for entrepreneurs, "it’s not seen as one of the major markets like New York." However, working on the West Coast leads to enquiries from companies in places including Hawaii, Australia, and Asia.  

"Our growth patterns with both our New York office and our West Coast operations are neck and neck," she says. J Public Relations also has an office in Los Angeles.

Petco’s Hallisey adds that it can be "challenging to get things done" because of the city’s small reputation.

"We need to build out the city with an infrastructure that’s going to drive the economy," concurs Sigler. 

Fact File

Top economic growth sectors
Cleantech, aerospace, information and communications technologies, active lifestyle, defense, and tourism

Biggest companies in the area 
Qualcomm, Sempra Energy, CareFusion, and Suja Juice

Biggest agencies in the area
J Public Relations, Allison+Partners, Lewis PR, and Nuffer, Smith, Tucker

Why people love it

The sun, sand, and surf yearround in a growing city that has the charm of a smaller community

Why people leave it
Pressure to look good in a swimsuit year-round

Fun fact
San Diego County produces the most avocados in the country

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