Fresno Mayor Swearengin corrals business, education leaders to support downtown efforts

The Fresno BeeFebruary 26, 2014 

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has cobbled together a cadre of the city's top leaders to proclaim their support for her plan to reopen the Fulton Mall to automobile traffic, pledge to "bring new life to downtown Fresno" and tackle other problems facing the community.

Swearengin's new Presidents' Council includes nearly two dozen chief executives from education, health care, agriculture, business and banking -- what she called the "anchor institutions" of the city. Swearengin added that she convened the panel "to confront head-on the long-term challenges of our city: unemployment, a deteriorating city center, educational attainment and access to health care."

The mayor's formal announcement Wednesday at the north end of the Fulton Mall came just a day before the Fresno City Council considers her proposal to tear out the 50-year-old pedestrian mall and restore Fulton Street between Tuolumne and Inyo streets.

Deborah Blue, chancellor of the State Center Community College District, pointed out that the schools and colleges, hospitals, agribusinesses and banks on the new panel collectively employ more than 100,000 people -- a figure she said represents 30% of all employment in Fresno and Madera counties. "We know that the future of our institutions is tied closely to the future of our area's economy," she said.

In the coming months, Blue added, "we will be taking the lead to work collaboratively on the issues that have held our area back for far too long."

The group issued a declaration that its members draw resources, employees and customers from throughout the Fresno region, and that "our own self-interest dictates that we protect and nurture these assets locally in order to remain viable over time."

The declaration also expressed concern that "the lack of a vibrant downtown as a focus of innovation, entrepreneurship and culture weakens the region's long-term economic prospects -- and our own -- and lowers the quality of life for residents today."

The group offered a six-point pledge that its members will:

  •  Support public investments in the inner city, including infrastructure improvements and regulatory changes to restore downtown.
  •  Collectively plan programs and events and establish facilities to provide health care, education, financial and nutritional services in neighborhoods of greatest need.
  • Leverage their institutional purchasing power to buy goods and services from local businesses instead of vendors from outside the area.
  •  Look for opportunities to directly invest in historically poverty-stricken neighborhoods, including establishing housing and recreation to help them recruit and retain employees and boost neighborhood revitalization.
  •  Support long-range land-use decisions that protect agriculture from urban sprawl and promote connections to urban neighborhoods. "Our industry depends on land-use decisions that don't put us in further jeopardy," said David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus and a member of the Presidents' Council.
  •  Seek new sources of money and find creative alternatives to achieve their goals.
"Mayors come and mayors go, and city council members come and go," Swearengin said, "but these institutions will still be here even decades from now ... Their success is tied to the success of the city."

Swearengin acknowledged that over Fresno's history, numerous advisory panels and blue-ribbon commissions have been convened to study and develop plans to cope with various city problems, often to see those plans come to no avail. This time, she promised, will be different.

"This group is action-oriented. We did not pull them together and ask them to put together a plan. We have plans already; we need to execute on those plans, and at the top of the list is advocating for public investment that supports restoration of the inner city."

The mayor reiterated her position that Fulton Mall represents the center of "a wave of blight that emanates from downtown Fresno and has now swept through more than half of the southern part of the city."

"Downtown Fresno is causing problems for much of the rest of the city. It should be a positive anchor, (but) today it's a negative anchor" she added.

Swearengin said she looks forward to the businesses "doing their part to help occupy some of the buildings" on the Fulton Mall. "We need more tenants in downtown Fresno, and they can play a key part."

She cited the representation of educational institutions including Fresno City College and the State Center district, Fresno State, Fresno Unified School District and Alliant University on the panel as an example of the possibilities to "fill up some of these buildings.

"They've set a goal of trying to get a certain number of students into downtown Fresno," Swearengin said. "Collectively, between the community colleges and universities that we have here, we think it's reasonable to see literally thousands of students in downtown Fresno in the next few years."

Members of the Fresno Presidents' Council are:

-- Mayor Ashley Swearengin

-- Barry Bedwell, California Grape and Tree Fruit League president

-- Deborah Blue, State Center Community College District chancellor

-- Tony Cantu, Fresno City College president

-- Joseph Castro, California State University, Fresno, president

-- Jack Chubb, Community Medical Centers CEO

-- Jeffrey Collins, Kaiser Permanente senior vice president

-- Randy Dhindsa, Rabobank senior vice president

-- Daniel Doyle, Central Valley Community Bancorp president/CEO

-- Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified School District superintendent

-- Nancy Hollingsworth, Saint Agnes Medical Center president/CEO

-- Ryan Jacobsen, Fresno County Farm Bureau executive director

-- David Krause, Paramount Citrus president

-- J. Mike McGowan, Premier Valley Bank president/CEO

-- Pete Menjares, Fresno Pacific University president

-- Scott Rhodes, Wells Fargo Bank senior vice president

-- Mark Riley, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch senior vice president

-- Xavier Romano, Alliant University director of campus/student services

-- Robert Smittcamp, Lyons-Magnus president/CEO

-- Todd Suntrapak, Children's Hospital Central California president/CEO

-- Richard Whitsell, Fresno First Bank president/CEO

-- Dennis Woods, United Security Bank president/CEO

-- Stuart Woolf, Woolf Farming president

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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