Mayor Ashley Swearengin has done a fine job of convincing federal officials and private investors that a $16 million grant to restore traffic to the Fulton Mall and preserve the world-class public art there will help revitalize downtown.
But there's a larger challenge ahead: convincing a skeptical Fresno City Council and residents that her vision for the mall will add horsepower to our city's long sputtering economy.
The mayor and Fulton business owners have excelled at presenting the numbers of what happens nationally when pedestrian malls are opened to traffic. Based on experiences elsewhere, Swearengin says that retail sales along the corridor would eventually jump 73% to $55 million annually.
More important is what the city and Fresno County would reap in additional taxes from escalating property values of the historic high-rises on Fulton. Tall buildings with fully leased spaces contribute mightily to government budgets and help raise the quality of life for residents by funding public safety, as well as amenities such as parks and trails.
Critics of the mayor's plan, however, have made a valid observation: Van Ness, another of downtown's historic streets, has thousands of cars traveling on it every day, and yet there is scant retail activity.
So the question remains: why tear out a historic pedestrian mall that doubles as park space when hundreds of thousands of Fresnans long ago wrote off downtown as a place to shop and dine?
In coming months, the mayor must present to the public a clear picture of what a revitalized downtown Fresno will look like and what residents can expect to find there.
We hesitate to even say "revitalize' because it has been used for so long in the absence of a genuine downtown turnaround that the word's mere presence on a page or the sound of it rolling off a politician's tongue causes people to tune out.
That said, Swearengin must better connect the economics of a thriving downtown to the difference it can make in the lives of Fresnans regardless of where they live within the city's 112 square miles.
We congratulate the mayor and her staff for putting together a winning federal grant application. Now we welcome a community debate — we hope for the last time — on what to do with the Fulton Mall.
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