The feds' top transportation executive made his first trip to Fresno a memorable one -- he brought a nearly $16 million cash gift.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Friday told a crowd of about 400 that Fresno will get a $16 million federal grant to help pay for the opening of Fulton Mall to cars.
"Today is a new beginning for your central business district," Foxx said from the stage near the mall's Clock Tower.
No one responded with gasps of surprise. Word of the grant had leaked out Wednesday evening and moved fast in the digital world.
But most in the crowd were more than happy to cheer the old news. Mayor Ashley Swearengin hopes to combine the federal grant with $2 million from the state and $2 million from Fresno County Measure C taxes to pay for a total make-over of what was once the city's Main Street.
Foxx, the former Charlotte, N.C., mayor who took over the transportation department in July, made a hurried trip to Fresno to help Swearengin celebrate.
Foxx said Fresno is in the midst of various policy changes that will reverse the decades-old flight to suburbia. The result will be a reborn urban core that brings immense benefits to everyone, he said.
"It's a testament to the work and the leadership of this community that we're here today," Foxx said.
Fresno will receive a $15,924,620 TIGER grant. The acronym stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.
A handful of speakers crammed a lot of praise, gratitude and high expectations into the half-hour ceremony. President Barack Obama's Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative got considerable credit for helping shepherd Fresno's grant application through Washington's maze. Fresno is the only community west of the Mississippi River to be part of the President's pilot program to rejuvenate struggling cities.
Congressman Jim Costa, the Fresno Democrat who played a key role in successfully twisting the arms of TIGER grant bureaucrats, said opening the mall will spark a new beginning for downtown Fresno.
"This grant is a real game-changer," Costa said.
Fresnans recognize that an eight-figure check from Uncle Sam is nothing to sneeze at, Costa told Foxx.
"We'd like you to visit town every week," Costa said.
Raul De Alba, chief executive of Jalisco Jewelers on the mall, said he almost fainted from joy when he heard about the grant.
"Being visible to new customers is the best advertising we could have," De Alba said. "Let's open that street."
Swearengin has wanted to open the nearly 50-year-old mall to cars since she took office in January 2009. She says cars bring people and people bring business. This economic activity will re-energize what was once Fulton Street between Tuolumne and Inyo streets, which in turn will spur the recovery of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods, she says.
Several mall options are on the table. Swearengin favors a plan that would restore two-way traffic while retaining much of the mall's green space and public art.
The City Council will have the final say. The decision could come early next year. Some council members worry about maintenance costs and potential cost-overruns.
Friday's ceremony was part of an end-of-summer mall party hosted by City Hall and the Downtown Fresno Partnership, the nonprofit focused on championing downtown. Live music, free food and free parking did much to attract the crowd that generally cheered the speakers.
There were critics. Abe Jones, 31, sat on the Clock Tower's ledge with a sign: "The Fulton Mall. Honor it, don't destroy it." A grumble from someone in the crowd occasionally coincided with a speaker's pause.
Fulton Mall, born on Sept. 1, 1964, has fallen far short of everyone's hopes. But the place remains a dream and a rallying point for many. They are sure to march over the next six months.
The spotlight on Friday, though, belonged to Swearengin and her downtown revitalization team.
The mayor has been at the center of the Fulton Mall storm for nearly five years. Much of the criticism has had a whiff of condescension: Another mall plan? Ha! Show us the money.
Secretary Foxx obliged with the TIGER grant.
Perhaps that's why Swearengin played it cool on a late-summer afternoon. She revved up the crowd with a few opening comments. She made sure the speakers moved smartly from stage wing to microphone and back. And she waited with self-assurance until the end to put an exclamation point on arguably the most glorious moment of her mayoral career.
What was once Fulton Street, the six blocks of mall storefronts and high-rises that in some cases date back to the early 20th century, represents the birthplace of metropolitan Fresno, the mayor said.
"This is where Fresno was once vital and vibrant," Swearengin said. "Today it lays dormant. This is about waking up our past and seeing a new vision for our city. That's what this project is all about.
"We'll argue about the details tomorrow. Today, let's celebrate our city's future."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.