Tehee: Despite perceptions, downtown Fresno making positive strides

The Fresno BeeFebruary 12, 2014 

When the Fresno City Council votes in two weeks on whether to open Fulton Mall to traffic, it will be a decision a long time coming and an indictment of the viability of downtown. Which is why it was the focus of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's annual State of Downtown address earlier this week.

In light of that attention, I'll offer my thoughts on the state of downtown, as someone who lives and works in the city's urban core.

The bad

You can't diminish the issues facing downtown.

There is crumbling infrastructure (centuries-old water pipes) and a lack of basic amenities for residents. And commercial space is a hard sell.

The mayor sees traffic spurring economic growth along the Fulton corridor, yet there are sections of Fulton Street already open to traffic that are full of empty spaces. Seeing the gutted interior of what used to be the Iron Bird Cafe, one wonders if any business could survive in the spot.

Even the uptick in residential space is limited, both geographically and in terms of diversity. Loft living isn't for everyone.

And while the area's supporters have become more mobilized with their message, it still feels a bit like choir preaching. They have not been able to persuade people (included key council members) that the area is worth any extended effort.

The good

I moved into the Mural District when it was still the Cultural Arts District and there were more warehouses than loft spaces. When people asked if downtown was safe, I'd laugh. Of course it was safe. There was no one down there to do you any harm.

That feeling of isolation is gone.

Downtown may not be bustling, exactly, but last week alone I saw lines of people waiting for events outside Fulton 55 on Thursday night, Star Palace on Friday and The Rainbow Ballroom on Saturday.

Thousands showed up for the Catacomb Music Festival in July and the Taco Truck Throwdown in August. Thousands more came for the Mexican Independence festival in September and to skate at the Downtown Ice Rink during the holidays.

There is economic benefit in having people around.

The Warnors Center for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit organization that operates the Warnors Theatre and the accompanying venues and commercial spaces, ended the fiscal year in the black for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, due in large part to increased public awareness.

Where it is headed

The kinetic energy of the area is not yet at critical mass.

It is continuing in a positive direction. The mayor hopes, with support from the council, the Fulton Mall can provide the final push.

I'm not holding my breath.

Of course, I know the ultimate fate of downtown doesn't rest on the mayor's shoulders. It doesn't rest on a city council vote or a multi-million dollar grant, either (though the latter would surely help).

The fate (and state) of downtown rests on those who are interested and invested in seeing the area succeed. Those numbers keep growing.


This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com

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