The Duke: New Port Commission chairman Dukie Valderrama gets down to business
By Andrea Siedsma
Dukie Valderrama has fond memories of growing up on the west side of National City and playing on the once-vacant tidelands there. Today, much of that area has been commercially developed and is bordered with barbed wire.
“The kids in National City today don’t have a lot of access to the bay; we need to try to improve that access for them and for the community,” said Valderrama, whose first name is really Robert but he doesn’t use it.
As the new chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, one of Valderrama’s priorities is to continue to improve the waterfront in his hometown. At the top of his agenda is a new park to be built next to the Pier 32 Marina, which opened for business last year.
“National City is probably the lowest income city in the county; most of our community does not have sailboats they can park at the Marina, but I still want to encourage my community to go down there and enjoy it,” he said. “There is a putting green, a sandbox for the kids and a community room down there. There is a strong effort to get our community more engaged on what’s happening on the waterfront.”
Also on Valderrama’s agenda this year is boosting the Port of San Diego’s maritime business, advancing development of the Chula Vista and San Diego bay fronts, and seeing the opening of the new Broadway Cruise Ship Terminal.
In an effort to help enhance his neighbouring community of Chula Vista, Valderrama would like to further push the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan, which is a guide for developing more than 500 acres on the Chula Vista bay front.
“Once we start doing development in Chula Vista and build that major infrastructure, all the surrounding communities will benefit,” said Valderrama, who first became a port commissioner in 2005. “Whatever we can do in Chula Vista also enhances National City, Imperial Beach and Coronado.
“We as port commissioners have been given a mandate from the community to maintain and protect the waterfront and the maritime industry,” he added.
As for the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan — which will revamp about a mile-and-a-half of waterfront on Harbor Drive from Laurel Street to the G Street Mole — Valderrama said his goal is to see construction start on the first phase this year. He also said he would work closely with developers who are trying to raise financing for the Lane Field Hotel project, which includes the planned construction of two hotels and offices and retail outlets on the north side of Broadway, between North Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway.
Valderrama is one of seven port commissioners who govern the Port of San Diego. One commissioner each is appointed by the city councils of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City, and three commissioners are appointed by the San Diego City Council. The Port of San Diego has operated without tax dollars since 1970 and has been responsible for $1.5 billion in public improvements in its five member cities — Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego. With a $10.6 billion economic impact on the San Diego region, the Port oversees two maritime cargo terminals, a cruise ship terminal, 17 public parks, various wildlife reserves and environmental initiatives and a Harbor Police department.
As Port chairman, Valderrama has declared his theme for 2010 as “the year of our partners,” which include more than 600 tenants and subtenants of the Port of San Diego, and others such as cruise lines, shipping companies, the military, the airport, the Port’s member cities and organizations such as the Environmental Health Coalition.
“The Port of San Diego could not exist without its partners,” Valderrama said. “Because of them, the Port is able to fulfill its mission and its roles as an economic engine, community service provider, environmental steward and provider of public safety.”
Valderrama has a long list of community service jobs under his belt. He spent two years as a director on the San Diego County Water Authority board and served on the agency’s Engineering and Operations Public Affairs Special Budget Committee. His past appointments within the city of National City include serving on the agency’s Planning and Environmental Professional Committees. He has also been on the city of National City’s Park and Recreation Commission and was chairman of the agency’s Planning Commission.
“The really terrific thing about Dukie is when he joined the Port Commission he had a tremendous background in community service,” said longtime Port Commissioner Steve Cushman, a fourth-generation San Diegan and former president of Cush Automotive Group. “He understands what it takes to serve on these high-profile boards.”
“I believe he will be the best chairman we ever had,” Cushman added. “He understands the big picture and what it means to move the Port of San Diego forward. He’s also just really a good person. He and his wife, Danene, have a history of giving back to the community. He really wants to help people and do a good job for the citizens of California.”
One of Valderrama’s “outside” passions is volunteering for the Relay for Life, a 24-hour walk that benefits cancer research. The walk has a special meaning for Valderrama, who has been the master-of-ceremonies for the event. His sister lost her battle to ovarian cancer last year. “It’s one of the most heartfelt and emotional things you’ll go through,” he said about participating in the Relay for Life. “I try to do things that are uplifting and that give back to the community.”
Another way Valderrama gives back is by helping troubled kids and teens. He and his wife of nearly 40 years have taken in more than 30 troubled children over the last three decades.
“The first young girl we took in was 14 years old and pregnant and her parents threw her out on the street. She was my daughter’s best friend,” Valderrama said. “She is a single parent now and graduated from San Diego State University and is working with physically and mentally challenged children.”
Valderrama told the story of another teenage boy he and his wife took in who asked one day if he cuold borrow his car. “Later on I get a call saying my car has been involved in a high-speed police chase,” Valderrama recalled. “ The poor kid just made a dumb decision. The end result was this young man went to prison. Even though he went to prison I stood behind him. Today he is a single parent raising three children and has a good-paying job.”
Valderrama is a firm believer of hard work. When he’s not walking around the National City or San Diego waterfronts visiting tenants and community members or in a Port Commission board meeting, you can most likely find him at one of the two companies he runs — A-D & D Drywall Inc. and WestCoast Scaffold Inc.
Valderrama’s first job at A-D&D (which was owned by his father-in-law) was as the secretary. “I started at the bottom level. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to run a company you need to know everything from the bottom to the top,” he said. “A year later I was running the company.”
Valderrama’s oldest son, Guy, now works for him at A-D&D.
‘The economy has been tough,” Valderrama said. “When times are good it’s easy to be a construction company. It’s times like this that you find out how good of an owner and manager you are. This is a challenging time. But I’ve been through it before and we have survived it.”
Valderrama has brought his keen and no-nonsense business approach to the Port Commission board room. However, politics and business can be very different.
“When we make a decision in business we implement it the next day,” he said. “When we make decisions at the Port it doesn’t mean you can start a project tomorrow. That’s frustrating for me as a business owner.
“But every port commissioner brings in a different business perspective,” he added. “We can look at a problem and try to get to the bottom line as quickly as we can. We try to take the political aspect out of the equation.”
Valderrama has combined his sharp business skills with a personal, down-to-earth approach that keeps his door open for everyone. But if you stop by his office or call and ask for “Robert,” he may not be available.
“If you call and ask for ‘Bob’ or ‘Robert’ you’re going to voice mail. If you call and ask for ‘Dukie,’ that means we have a relationship, so I’ll talk to you if I’m available or not in a meeting,” he said.
Curious about how he got his nickname? “My dad, Robert, who passed away, didn’t want me to be called Jr., so he said, ‘You are next in line to my throne so you will be called Duke.’ So I became Dukie.”
Valderrama has been heralded by his colleagues, friends and community leaders as having endless energy and passion for his job, career, family and his community. Although a recent trip to Hawaii with his wife was a nice reprieve from his day-to-day jammed-packed schedule, Valderrama, who just turned 61, said he has no future retirement plans.
“A lot of my friends who are retired ask me when I’m going to retire,” he said. “Many of them retired because they didn’t like their jobs. I enjoy what I’m doing. As long as I have the passion and love for what I’m doing I’m going to keep doing it.”