According to some Fresno locals, it was 30 years ago -- perhaps because of Proposition 13, perhaps because of the falling price of grapes -- that the city at the heart of the San Joaquin Valley went into decline. Since then, accusations of corruption, dismal economics, and nearly unmitigated low-density development have made the city both the butt of jokes and one of the nation's most forlorn urban areas. It has not suffered the spectacular fall of, say, Detroit -- but only because it never rose to Detroit's industrial prominence in the first place.
But now Fresno and Detroit have something else in common: They are among the six cities that the Obama administration have chosen to take part in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, a pilot program intended to help depressed cities use federal resources to revive their economies.
Administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development with participation from a wide array of federal agencies that address urban development – including the departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency – Strong Cities, Strong Communities is intended to help cities leverage federal funds and capitalize on federal expertise in order to execute their own, home-grown economic development strategies. The White House heralds the program as a way to use civic ingenuity to create jobs.
"They're trying to find ways to make the federal government work better for those of us who are working at the local level to make our communities better," said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. "There are ways in which I think we can streamline and fast-track certain issues that we have to deal with the federal government on."
That sort of coordination and quest for efficiency represents a new attitude in the federal government, said HUD District 9 administrator Ophelia Basgal.
"To try to get people out of their particular program areas and think about how you can leverage federal resources in a community," said Basgal. "That's very different from how HUD operated in the past, or DOT or EPA or any other federal agency."
Fresno is the lone western city to take part in the initiative. The other cities are Chester, Pa.; Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, and New Orleans. HUD officials say that because it is a pilot program, cities were not invited to compete for spots in the program. Swearingen said that Fresno was already in the running before she had even heard of the program, which is intended to include a variety of cities with a variety of challenges.
"In Detroit, your issue isn't, ‘do you have enough available land?' It's, ‘what do you do in a city that's shrinking?'" said Basgal. " That's why this pilot approach of having a variety of a different kind of cities facing different issues."
She and city leaders hope, however, that by the time the initiative runs its course that everyone in Fresno will be aware of its impacts on the city.
"We're pleased to finally get national recognition and be identified as a city that has good economic development plans but needs help implementing them," said Swearingen.
Basgal said that Fresno was an obvious candidate for the initiative because of its aggressive and unified approach to economic development and the fact that decades of desperation have, say city officials, recently given rise to a new, more aggressive approach to economic development.
"While we've been hard-hit, the economic challenges we face as a region have been in place for many years," said Swearengin. "I made the case that other cities that were picked because they were poster children for this recession….we are on our way back from long-term chronic unemployment and chronic economic distress. We're primed."
The initiative centers on Community Solutions Teams, which consist of representatives from relevant federal agencies who will be embedded in Fresno city hall for a year. Those representatives will work with each other and with city officials to identify ways that existing federal programs and funding opportunities – the initiative includes no formal financial support – can be put to work for the city's benefit.
The team's specific goals have yet to be determined. Swearengin said that the team would spend its first 30 days getting oriented, after which time they would create a list of concrete goals to address in the following 11 months.
"(The initiative is) not something that's completely defined yet," said Balch. "It represents more potential or promise than actually knowing what it is that's going to happen."
Many of its goals, say Swearengin, will involve the city's physical character.
"They relate almost entirely to the built environment," said Swearengin. "One of the reasons the team was interested in coming to Fresno was our focus on downtown revitalization, planning for high-speed rail, planning for the expansion of our industrial sector, in particular food-related business, which is key for our region."
Swearengin said that the Community Solutions Team will work with staff from the city departments including planning, utilities, and public works. In addition to the Community Solutions Team, the initiative includes a fellowship program that will place mid-career professionals in city agencies. A National Resource Network has also been proposed to provide technical advice and models of best practices for participating cities.
The city's downtown holds particular promise for the team, if only because it has long been considered one of the most moribund and under-performing in the state.
"Downtown was a grand planning experiment," said Basgal. "There's nothing that goes on in downtown Fresno after dark. How to re-create a vibrant downtown is a key to where Fresno goes economically."
For generations Fresno has famously promoted dispersed residential development which, in turn, has dissuaded residents from visiting the downtown. As well, the city's reliance on the agricultural sector means that there are fewer traditional downtown jobs and more in the rural areas surrounding the city. Many of the city's 354,000 residents simply cannot afford to patronize the sorts of businesses that downtowns rely on. By some measures, Fresno's quality of life – taking into account poverty levels and other data – ranks dead last among all regions in the United States. In some parts of the city, average annual wages do not break $20,000.
Nonetheless, city leaders see the downtown as the key to creating higher-wage jobs and to attracting businesses that will create a local multiplier.
Basgal noted that one of the region's biggest employers – the Internal Revenue Service – could be enticed to move downtown with the right incentives. The city is also considering turning a moribund Fulton Street pedestrian mall into a traditional street, which city officials hope will lead to more vibrant street life.
"If we really believe that the downtown is the heart and soul of our community and the economics are in conflict with that, then we have to in the short haul boost that effort through incentives of some sort…on the local and the national level," said Al Smith, president of the Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce.
Though many Fresno-area residents might not choose to visit downtown today, the state's planned high-speed rail network could, one day, bring all of California to Fresno, if only for a few minutes. For those passengers who would get on and off in Fresno, the city's high-speed rail depot could, it is hoped, become a catalyst for the city's development.
Though the high-speed rail line is still decades in the offing, city and federal officials are hoping that merely planning for the station will lead to economic benefits regardless of when, or if, the train actually arrives.
"There's always some amount of money that's flowing for transportation," said Balch. "There are always funding streams. So figuring out ways to get them running in the same direction makes sense when things are down."
Though high-speed rail is a massive project in and of itself, it is just one component of the state's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Senate Bill 375 offer further incentives for Fresno to develop its urban fabric in a way that encourages density and discourages automobile use. The city is already drawing up a master plan for growth in its southern section, which will be designed according to the principals of smart growth. The implementation of that growth plan was, according to Basgal, another reason why Fresno was chosen for Strong Cities, Strong Communities.
"Fresno is the most rural of all and the only one on the West Coast," said Basgal. "But it has a lot of great opportunities because of the focus in California on sustainability and planning."
Elliot Balch, Fresno Downtown Revitalization Manager, 559.490.9966
Ophelia Basgal, Regional Administrator, Department of Housing and Urban Development, 415.489.6400
Al Smith, President, Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce, 559.495.4800
Ashley Swearengin, Mayor, City of Fresno, 559.621.8000