As of this past week, longtime Coronado resident Garry Bonelli is the new board chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners for the San Diego Unified Port District. Bonelli fondly remembers taking the ferry across the bay from downtown San Diego to Coronado back in 1968 when there was no bridge nor Coronado Shores.
As Coronado’s representative on the San Diego Port Commission, Bonelli had a most unlikely journey to get here. While living in the Bronx as a young man, he had two neighbor buddies drafted and subsequently killed in Vietnam. At the time, he was failing his college accounting classes and it looked like he would be drafted into the Army. His father recommended enlisting in the Navy or Air Force to lessen the chances he would end up serving in ground combat. Bonelli joined the Navy and attended recruit training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago.
Within less than 24 hours as a recruit, a Navy chief petty officer showed a scuba training film about becoming a frogman and asked who was interested. Seaman recruit Bonelli was intrigued and raised his hand. When told he would be going to Coronado for training, his limited knowledge of geography caused him to ask, “What part of Vietnam is that?”
Retiring after 45 years as a Navy SEAL, with 13 on active duty and 32 SEAL reserve years of service, including a stint as the CO of Seal Team Five, he rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, earning his M.S. in mass communications as well as undergraduate degrees in journalism and marketing. The Navy also sent him to UNC Chapel Hill to earn a certificate in business leadership.
In 2013, the City of Coronado was seeking a resident to serve on the board of Port commissioners. With the encouragement of friends and city leaders, Bonelli was selected by the council to be Coronado’s representative on the San Diego Port Commission. Five years later, he says “I am still learning and making discoveries about how diversified our port truly is.” The Port of San Diego has seven Commissioners, three from San Diego due to its size, and one each from the other represented cities: Coronado, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, and National City. Port Commissioners are appointed for four-year terms and can be reappointed, with the Chairman elected by board colleagues on an annual basis.
Chairman Bonelli was sworn in on January 16, 2019, at a ceremony at Coasterra restaurant on Harbor Island. As the newly appointed Chairman, his stated theme is “Renaissance on the Bay.” “Often people don’t realize the impact the Port has on the regional economy,“ he comments.
As a Port Commissioner, he makes public policy and provides stewardship for the 6,000 acres of tidelands along 34 miles of San Diego Bay. An economic engine for the region, the Port generates $8.3 billion annually and supports 68,000 well-paying jobs. Commissioner Bonelli coordinates with the Port’s five member cities, works with the shipbuilding and ship repair industries, oversees operations of cargo and cruise terminals, and establishes policies for harbor police and homeland security issues. His responsibilities include working with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, environmental groups; and more than 800 hotel, retail, restaurant, and visitor serving tenants who lease tidelands.
Currently, the Port and its tenants have more than $7 billion worth of projects in the pipeline or being proposed for the bayfront. Especially relevant to Coronado, he weighed in on the Ferry Landing area saying, “I am asking our port and our city and our tenant, Ferry Landing Association, for ideas on how the waterfront could best be imagined and utilized. I want to look at ways to work with our city to maximize the space and experience for both residents and visitors. This could mean that adjacent commercial properties may be included, and the potential for the redevelopment of the Ferry Landing could possibly include an Arts Center.”
“We are at the beginning of what could truly be an extra special place on our bay – a renaissance if you will. We have a long way to go to get to the final results, and we will definitely be seeking public and expert input along the way. My vision for the future of the Ferry Landing is ‘understated elegance’.”
The Port is also currently working with the current leasee of the Coronado Cays North Grand Caribe Isle property with the goal of beautification and to create more open space. Stayed tuned for progress on this over the coming months.
The life of a Port Commissioner is full of planning and meetings, generally at least 10-15 hours per week and this number doubles on weeks before the monthly Board Meetings. As Chairman, his load is even greater, as he sits on more than half a dozen boards, including the SANDAG Airport Connectivity Subcommittee to help improve ground mobility to and from San Diego International Airport/Lindbergh Field as well as a military base access committee to determine better solutions to move people on and off bases around the region more efficiently, and the SANDAG Transportation Committee, which oversees a myriad of issues including the Bayshore Bikeway.
His wife, Marti, adamantly tells him that he has miserably failed at retirement by keeping busier than ever; however, he cherishes his role in making a difference as a Port Commissioner. He feels blessed to live in the Crown City, where he and Marti raised their two sons, Jeff and Jake, both of whom still live in San Diego.
What’s on deck in 2019 for the Port? It will definitely be a big year in making progress for Port projects. His mantra for the Port of San Diego is clearly defined: “In order to have a world-class port we must: think globally, plan regionally, and act locally, focusing on what’s best for the bay overall.”
His goals include completing the Port Master Plan, so that it can go before the State Coastal Commission, and working hand-in-hand with Chula Vista on that city’s Bayfront Park Project, which covers 535 acres, and includes a Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center, restaurants, marinas, retail space, an RV park, and more. He notes that fully half of the acreage will be dedicated to open space. He also plans to continue to be a champion for clean bay water. “Considering our region’s tremendous growth of people and businesses over the years, I am proud that the bay water is cleaner today than when I first arrived as a sailor more than 50 years ago. Keeping the bay clean will always be a high priority and something we must keep vigilant about.”
Portside Pier, in the former Anthony’s Fish Grotto site on Harbor Drive, is expected to open this time next year, with four new restaurants, including Brigantine on the Bay, Miguel’s Cocina, Ketch Grill and Taps, and Portside Gelato and Coffee.
For the Seaport Village site, the Port solicited bids from around the world and the conglomerate that won the contract is now working to flesh out a more formal plan, taking into account an identified earthquake fault. The adjusted refined plan should be ready to present to the Commissioners by the end of the year. “The development team, known as 1 Highway 1 could invest $1.5 billion in the new Seaport San Diego. At the same time, the San Diego Symphony will invest $45 million on Embarcadero Marina Park South to build a year-round performance venue. In addition, the Port has 22 parks under its purview and he says, “the goal is to have connected green space all around the port to create inviting environmentally friendly spaces.”
The Convention Center expansion discussion will continue. For the first phase, the Port had funds to help underwrite the project, and were also able to help with the second expansion. Now, additional funds are needed for the next expansion phase and increasing the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) has been proposed by the City of San Diego. That decision will have to go to the voters who reside in the City of San Diego in 2020.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the passenger cruise industry is making a resurgence. For each and every cruise that starts or ends in San Diego, the impact is up to $2 million to the local economy when a cruise starts or ends in port here, and $330,000 when a stop in port is part of the itinerary. In response to a growing economy and great strides taken by Mexico to update their ports of call, the cruise industry is once again starting to grow in San Diego, with 250,000 passengers last year and an anticipated 400,000 this year, with the growth anticipated to return to previous numbers within three to five years with Disney, Holland, and Carnival Cruises all using San Diego as a port.
“We were one of the first Ports in the nation to adopt a Climate Action Plan, and little things go a long way in making a difference in the environment, like having plugs where ships can secure power and not keep their engines running. We have a great team of people taking on the different challenges that arise,” he says.
One of his recent duties was to reopen the Shelter Island Boat Ramp, which has been closed for more than a year for repairs. The delay was due to unexpected cement blocks and debris that were discovered and had to be excavated. As the busiest boat ramp in California, with approximately 50,000 boaters a year, this has had a major impact on the three other boat ramps, including Glorietta Bay Ramp in Coronado, and Chula Vista and National City’s. The reopening and upgrades to the Shelter Island Ramp will have a positive effect for the region immediately.
One of Bonelli’s personal passions is serving as the chairman of the Navy SEAL Foundation Board. He travels extensively to raise donations to fund more than 30 programs, including assistance for Gold Star families, scholarships, and bringing world health experts to work on PTSD brain protocols, advanced prosthetics and many other groundbreaking projects to assist SEALs and their families.
Having traveled all over the world for pleasure, business, and with the military, he still appreciates the sanctity of coming home to Coronado and will always look out for the best interests of the city and its residents. He keeps in touch with the community and loves walking around the city and bay to see what’s going on and to take in the breathtaking beauty of the place he feels lucky to call home. “I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time throughout my life. I feel that I’m up for this next challenge, as we move forward.”