Fresno downtown revitalization unit is gone, but the work continues

The Fresno BeeMay 10, 2014 

Downtown revitalization has lost its own department at Fresno City Hall, but the city's center picked up a new best friend in Deputy City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter.

Which is a good thing, since the biggest question in downtown politics -- the fate of Fulton Mall -- is far from settled.

The Downtown and Community Revitalization Department, one of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's key initiatives when she took office in 2009, is gone. The small unit of urban experts didn't die by a bean counter's hand. It was slowly absorbed into the bureaucracy.

DCR in its heyday had a high profile, due in part to its first director. Former City Council Member Craig Scharton, nicknamed the downtown revitalization czar, relished being the department's public face.

When Scharton resigned, Elliott Balch became downtown's point person. Balch left City Hall in April to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago.

The downtown spotlight most likely now will fall on Quan-Schecter, a planning specialist in DCR promoted in February to deputy city manager.

Her annual salary is $85,000. She said she was making about $74,000 a year in DCR.

City officials say DCR's disappearance merely means the mission -- reviving downtown and surrounding neighborhoods -- has been "institutionalized." They say everyone at City Hall is assuming the public relations and policy chores. If a public face is needed, they say, Swearengin will be it.

But Swearengin is running for the state controller's office. She's got a busy year if she advances to the November general election. Budget hearings for the 2014-15 fiscal year begin in a few weeks. Downtown policy almost certainly will be of interest to City Council members.

Quan-Schecter said she'll gladly fill the Scharton-Balch role if it means advancing the old DCR's mission.

"My sleeves for Fulton Mall were rolled up from Day One," Quan-Schecter said. "I'm still providing oversight for the project. I have this passion for making the heart of this city better."

Swearengin vowed in her 2008 mayoral campaign to move swiftly on downtown. She transformed the economic development department into the Downtown and Community Revitalization Department after taking office in January 2009.

Downtown is big enough for projects of all sizes, Swearengin said at the time, "but what is missing is an overall strategic blueprint."

City officials said DCR had a big hand in many successes.

Work began on crafting a Fulton Corridor Specific Plan and a Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan. They and the 2035 general plan update are slated to go to the council this year.

The development code is being reformed to spur private investment downtown.

Downtown Fresno Partnership, a property-based business improvement district, was created.

The Lowell neighborhood north of downtown is turning around as part of a pilot project based in City Hall.

The city landed a nearly $16 million federal grant to help pay for the return of cars to Fulton Corridor between Tuolumne and Inyo streets.

And the City Council in February voted to open the mall to traffic, embracing Swearengin's vision of a place with room for cars, pedestrians, artwork and dynamic growth.

But DCR from the start faced political pressures born of the Great Recession.

Council members and city unions have been somewhat understanding of a mayor's organizational authority. Alan Autry wanted a deputy mayor and education liaisons. Critics grumbled but gave way.

Swearengin's DCR was a similar venture. But when services were cut and workers laid off, critics went after DCR. They said DCR did nothing that couldn't be handled by departments such as planning.

"DCR was her version of the deputy mayor. It was her demonstration project," said Council Member Lee Brand, who took office at the same time as Swearengin. "I can understand that. You try to give the mayor some flexibility. But within six months, we were in a budget crisis and fighting to stay solvent. By the second or third year, DCR had become a big target.

"The administration knew that."

DCR never had a big staff. City officials said it had five employees. Brand said it was never clear how many were on the DCR payroll.

But in the end, DCR outlived its time. The department became a part of the Development and Resource Management department. Scharton became business development director, working out of the city manager's office, then resigned last summer to open Peeve's Public House on Fulton Mall. He has temporarily taken over leadership of Downtown Fresno Partnership after Chief Executive Kate Borders resigned in March to take a job in Arizona.

Then Balch went back to school. Former City Council Member Larry Westerlund was hired as economic development director.

Quan-Schecter, Elaine Robles-McGraw (community revitalization manager) and Amy Huerta (business initiatives manager) are DCR survivors still at City Hall.

Quan-Schecter fills a void created when Bruce Rudd was promoted to city manager last June. Previous City Manager Mark Scott had had two assistant city managers, Rudd and Renena Smith. Quan-Schecter's new job takes some of the burden off Rudd and Smith.

Quan-Schecter, 40, earned an undergraduate degree in health policy administration from Penn State University and a master's of business administration from Fresno State. She has lived in Fresno since 1996 and been a city employee since 2009.

She and the administration have downtown challenges ahead. Opponents of Swearengin's plan to rip up Fulton Mall have sued. The council still has to hire a contractor to rebuild Fulton Street. And Swearengin could be working in Sacramento in January, which would mean a new mayor.

Quan-Schecter said she has faith that DCR's work will endure. She said she saw a need for downtown revitalization when she came to Fresno and vowed to be an agent for wise change.

"It's in my blood now."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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