It seems like only yesterday: 'Agenda: Fresno' 25 years later

Posted by George Hostetter on December 23, 2013 

Jan. 1, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the start of one of the most important journalistic efforts in Fresno’s history.

That was the start of The Bee’s 10-day investigative project called “Agenda: Fresno.” It began Sunday, Jan. 1, 1989.

“Agenda: Fresno is not a blueprint for a utopia,” The Bee wrote in the lead story. “Fresno will always have its fog and its heat. No city will ever work equally well for all of its inhabitants.

“Instead, it is an outline for a better Fresno or, at the very least, a Fresno that is responsible for its destiny.

“Where do we go from here? What will we do about downtown? Social services? Crime? Transportation.

“And, perhaps most importantly, how do we shake our collective insecurity and make the most of our strengths.”

Fresno was expected to have a population of 648,000 in 2010.

Fresno State could become “a major power in the world of college athletics, particularly if a 15,000-seat on-campus arena is built and Bulldog Stadium is expanded to 50,000 seats,” The Bee wrote.

Fresno City Hall in 1987 gave $50,000 to the Alliance for the Arts. That jumped to $165,000 in 1988. “Chump change,” said Gayle Surabian, the alliance’s outgoing director, who added that the group would seek $250,000 from City Hall in 1989.

The Bee said of local government: “Something’s wrong. City Hall is the site of endless public hearings and citizens advisory board meetings, but the decisions come out of political hardball games played in the proverbial back rooms. City managers have as much job security as baseball coaches. One proposed answer is a strong-mayor system, but are we ready to put that much faith in one elected official?”

Day No. 3 of “Agenda: Fresno” was three pages on crime issues.

Fresno had 1.3 sworn officers per 100,000 population a quarter-century ago. The U.S. average for cities with populations of more than 250,000 was 2.8.

Here’s part of what The Bee published on Jan. 3, 1989:

“The staff shortage is felt in the field as well. City Council policy, even in the face of escalating calls for service, is that police respond to all 911 calls.

“When Richard C. Rolfe, 46, of Fresno was attacked by a cat on Dec. 18 last year, Officer Nick Ponomarenko was sent to take a report.

“The report’s conclusion: ‘Rolfe was vict. of a cat bite. The owner of the cat is unknown.’

“Police admit that increased demands on their time — even if the calls are cat-bite calls — often result in reports being quickly written and poorly done.”

One of the Jan. 3, 1989 crime stories in “Agenda: Fresno” had this headline: “Crowded jail causes revolving door.”

The Bee in 1989 reported that prosecutors “believe that many defendants don’t come to court at all because a judge’s authority to issue warrants for failures to appear has no weight behind it. The jail could not hold one-tenth of the people who have not shown up for court in the last year if each were given a 10-day sentence.”

The Bee told of a Sanger woman “who was arrested seven times in a two-month span last year on prostitution and drug charges. She was was cited out of the jail five times and re-arrested each time a short while later.”

The Bee reported that a new $35 million jail in downtown would open in a month or so.

The Bee reported on Jan. 3, 1989: “Police suspect that giving citations to drug offenders merely allows them to commit burglaries and other crimes until they are caught, usually for being under the influence of the drug and not for the more serious burglary charge.

“Some judges have suggested, half-seriously, that the city would actually be safer if accused murderers were released on low bail and drug users were jailed before trial.”

One of The Bee’s stories of Jan. 3, 1989 looked at the concept of community-based policing, something the department was slowly embracing.

The Bee wrote: “The idea of community-based policing was to make the cop a living, breathing part of the neighborhood, ....”

The article ended this way:

“Business people like Akira Yokomi, owner of Central Fish Co. in Chinatown, are skeptical that policing is going to get any better, even if more officers are hired or police become more selective in taking calls.

“Nevertheless, he wishes for a return to the day — whether it is called community-based policing or something else — when he could call for an officer and knew who was on the way.

“’They change police so much now, we don’t even know who is who,’ (Yokomi) said. “When I first started 38 years ago, the cop was on the beat 10 years and everybody knew him.”

The fourth day of “Agenda: Fresno” tackled the economy.

Local analysts, The Bee reported on Jan. 4, 1989, see hope in the future because “agriculture, the foundation of Fresno’s economy, is rebounding after a lag of many years, and the area is diversifying into a regional center for offices, financial services and distribution.

“On the flip side, however, are things that could tempter that growth. Those things include a possible national recession and a growing number of unskilled and underemployed Southeast Asian refugees who are moving to the Fresno area.

“Economic development officials say job-training programs and development of manufacturing and industrial jobs to employ the lesser-skilled would help alleviate the problems.

“But nearly everyone who is knowledgeable and concerned about Fresno’s economic future expresses the same assessment: cautious optimism.”

Each day’s package of “Agenda: Fresno” stories included a handful of solutions. Here are two tips for the economy:

* “City government should share more start-up costs with new businesses, provide additional incentives and possibly establish a city-owned industrial park.”

* “City Hall should ‘fast track’ major business projects and speed up the process for obtaining permits.”

The 10 days of stories give a sense of what current and former city leaders thought of Fresno’s prospects.

“Fresno is the Bermuda Triangle of good government,” said former City Manager Robert Christofferson in the Jan. 5, 1989 package on local politics.

“People are going to have to give up something,” said Gary Carozza, the county’s environmental health director in the Jan. 6, 1989 package on the air and water pollution. “That’s a problem because I don’t think that people individually feel that they’re the cause of the problem. It’s not going to be a pleasant task.”

Paul Bartlett, chairman of a local rail study committee, said in the Jan. 7, 1989 transportation package that high-speed rail in the San Joaquin Valley “is not pie in the sky.”

“We need bodies — bodies on a payroll,” said Richard Samuelian, owner of Sam’s Luggage and Leather Goods on Fulton Mall in the Jan. 8, 1989 package on downtown.

“The thing that Fresno should do immediately is put cars, or at least buses, back on the mall,” said former Fresno City Manager Gerald Newfarmer (then city manager in San Jose) in the Jan. 9, 1989 package also on downtown. “The unfortunate thing about it — the decision to take cars off Fulton Street and try the famous Fresno experiment — is that it was a failure. And it should have been recognized as that sooner. What urban developers learned from the Fresno experiment is is that taking cars off the mall would kill it.”

“I’m waiting to see what happens,” said Mark Jennings, an 18-year-old Fresnan who played an average of eight video games a day, in the Jan. 10, 1989 wrap-up. “Something will happen.”


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