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Voice of San Diego: Gifts of public land wooed discoverers to San Diego

(This article originally appeared on Voice of San Diego HERE.)

The seeds of San Diego’s innovation economy sprouted with big gifts from the public.

San Diegans in the decades following World War II voted again and again to deed giant parcels of city-controlled land near Torrey Pines to woo science and research institutions to the city. They gave:

• Three hundred acres for General Atomics, researching peacetime applications for atomic energy.

• Twenty-seven acres for Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, who wanted to start a research facility.

• Hundreds more acres for the creation of a science and engineering-focused campus for the University of California. University archives say the 500-plus acres had a “value of several millions of dollars.” The grant was to be leveraged to secure adjacent land from the federal government.

All told, the land donated in these three deals amounts to an area more than half the size of Balboa Park.

Local public support for this investment in growing research and development was deep.

City laws required a majority vote to convey pueblo lands north of the San Diego River. But none of the measures just scraped by. Voters overwhelmingly supported the investments.

The measure to grant 320 acres to General Atomics passed by a margin of more than 6-to-1. The measure to grant land for Salk’s institute got 74 percent of the vote.

“That wasn’t happening in St. Louis. That wasn’t happening in Rochester,” said Mary Walshok, a UC San Diego sociologist who has a book coming out this fall about the region’s innovation history. “So it’s not the sunshine and the beach. It’s that we actually made investments. Local yokels!”

War was a big driver for San Diego’s local economy, especially sectors rooted in science and technology, as we began exploring the other day.

The region found several wider applications for scientists’ wartime discoveries in the years immediately following World War II. Manufacturing infrastructure was in place. The Navy’s advances in ocean research and radar navigation could be applied to commercial shipping and flying. And boosters trained their sights on convincing the University of California to set up a San Diego campus.

Scientists, researchers and businesses sought land. And the public votes show they found widespread support to come or grow here – a major ingredient in the growth of the parts of San Diego’s economy we’re focusing on in a reporting quest.

I don’t know why the support was so widespread. At the time of the land votes, the Navy had affected every level of San Diego’s economy. But it’s unclear from the conversations and reading I’ve done what else lawmakers or scientists did to convince San Diegans to vote in such numbers to make the investment in research and development. It’s certainly hard to imagine there being any kind of similar public decision for investment these days.

City leaders and the companies and organizations who wanted the land made sales pitches. Mayor Charles Dail, who’d had polio, took a special interest in wooing researchers and figures like Salk with the dream of free land.

General Atomics was attractive to San Diegans who wanted the city to grow differently than Los Angeles. “Technical industry not producing smog,” according to a presentation an early General Atomics researcher gave about the company’s origins in the 1960s. (Walshok included the presentation in a talk she gave a couple of years ago.)

Meanwhile, Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Roger Revelle was working on the UC regents to set up a San Diego campus focused on science and engineering. Researchers already established in San Diego picked up the mantle and signaled to the regents the campus would have strong ties with the science community.

Writes historian Abraham Shragge in an article for the Journal of San Diego History:

With its emphasis on hiring a top-notch faculty composed in no small part of world-renowned scientists, the university’s presence helped to attract a number of companies engaged in kindred nuclear, electronic, oceanographic, space-related, and biological research.

It was a fertile time, as Walshok describes it. General Atomics pushed its scientists to do basic research, “free of the pressure of producing immediate profits.” The more entrepreneurial among them started spinoff companies, like a little one called SAIC, whose founder Robert Beyster had moved to San Diego to work for General Atomics in the 1950s. Nearby, the Scripps Research Institute opened.

San Diego had granted hundreds of acres of land to have a foothold in the development of science and technology. The region would need to retool again at the end of the Cold War, as manufacturing moved to strengthening countries overseas and demand for munitions dropped.

But, with the land grants, the region had planted seeds for its science and tech growth.

By the 1990s, a book out of Harvard Business Press about venture capital invoked the city’s land gifts as a reason why San Diego had become a world center for biotechnology.

This history of land grants is one of the most interesting things I’ve learned so far on this quest. I think it helps explain why San Diego became home to these companies and a spirit of innovation.

Now, what could keep that spirit from growing? What would be the modern equivalent of the deep public vote to grant hundreds of acres? Should the city or its residents still woo organizations like the ones that set down roots here the 1950s or 1960s?

I’m curious what you think. Please chime in below.

I'm Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.