After years of delay, developers say a massive $200 million project is set to begin in southeast Fresno that would bring department stores, restaurants and entertainment -- all on a scale to rival River Park, which transformed northeast Fresno more than a decade ago.
The much-anticipated Fancher Creek development was first proposed in 2000, and at the time, well-known developers Ed Kashian and Tom Richards put up signs saying it would be done by 2008.
Flash ahead to 2011 and much of the 500 acres is still dusty and undeveloped.
But now, Kashian and Richards say, the time has come for streets and utilities to be installed. That is expected to start in the next three months -- enabling parking structures and buildings to come next. Retailers would move in by the end of next year.
The news has stirred excitement in City Hall, and Fresno City Council Member Sal Quintero -- who represents the area -- says it's about time.
"I'm confident it will happen," Quintero said. "Maybe the developers were a little bit overzealous when they put up signs that said, 'Coming in 2008,' but no one ever thought the economy was going to get this bad. I'm optimistic."
Yet it remains to be seen whether the economy has recovered enough for a project of this magnitude to move forward quickly, some observers say.
Credit is still tight, there are plenty of other vacant buildings around town -- and tenants might not be so easy to lure, they say.
"At the moment, it doesn't look like this is the most opportune time to build," said Tom Burns, manager of the graduate business program at the Craig School of Business at Fresno State.
Sometimes, Burns said, developers of large projects will start talking about work in early stages to get the word out and gauge interest in the marketplace, he said.
"Renting space is a product just like a snow cone is a product, so you have to get people to know about it," Burns said.
But Kashian insists the talk of starting the project is much more than just a marketplace trial balloon.
"I see a great need for retail and those services in southeast Fresno," said Kashian.
"The sooner we can start ... the sooner we can start serving that segment of the population."
An area in need
Southeast Fresno has long been seen by the city of Fresno as the next area of growth.
The extension of Highway 180 is helping traffic move easier east of Fresno where new homes have popped up on farmland.
Retail is slowly inching its way east too, but there's not enough for the current market, commercial brokers said.
There's never been significant retail in southeast Fresno, said Peter Orlando, retail broker at Retail California, who is handling the leasing for Fancher Creek's town center.
According to a study conducted by the developers, Fancher Creek would serve about 450,000 people living south of Shields Avenue and in outlying communities as far as Dinuba, Selma and Reedley.
"Within 15 to 20 minutes we can serve those South Valley towns and offer them some of the same anchor retailers, clothing retailers and restaurants that River Park offers," Orlando said.
While there is a Walmart, a Big Lots and grocery stores along Kings Canyon, residents who want to shop at department stores or watch a movie must travel about seven miles to Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis or 15 miles to River Park.
Travel time is one of the biggest complaints from residents who want a Target, a Trader Joe's or a movie theater close by, Quintero said.
The long wait
The developers said they hoped to turn about 500 acres of fruit trees and rows of crops near Clovis Avenue and Kings Canyon Road into a new regional shopping center soon after they bought the land in 2000.
But it took about five years for the city of Fresno and the development team to get the zoning and the environmental impact report approved.
The development agreement, which describes the responsibilities of each side, took another three years, said Kashian of Lance-Kashian & Company in Fresno, who at the same time was building the 45-acre retail and residential development Campus Pointe at California State University, Fresno.
While the plan is to bring a River Park-like redevelopment to the southeast, in some respects this project is very different.
The developers are taking an approach that so far has not been tried in the Valley.
They will combine retail, offices and entertainment with about 500 residential units on top of the businesses to create a "walkable" urban community.
The project's town-center portion, on the east side of Clovis Avenue near Tulare Avenue, will take between five and eight years to complete, Kashian said.
The project will include a library, a transit hub and a recreational trail along the Fancher Creek canal.
The developers have likened it to San Jose's Santana Row, a 1.5 million-square-foot shopping, dining and entertainment destination with housing.
"We're doing a live, work, multiuse project that we believe will rebrand that area," Kashian said.
"I think younger people and older people will prefer living in an area where all their needs they can walk to."
Another portion of the plan includes a 23-acre village center at Kings Canyon Road and Fowler Avenue where a CVS drugstore will start construction at the end of this year.
Most of the village center will be dedicated to multifamily and senior housing developments next to existing single-family homes already built by Centex Homes, a national homebuilder.
There's one more element of the development that may highlight the difficulties in this economy. The business park -- built on about 55 acres at Belmont and Fowler avenues -- has been open for business since 2008, but so far only one tenant has signed on.
Richards, of The Penstar Group in Fresno, is spearheading the business-park development, which has utilities, streets and lights, but no buildings.
Ferguson Enterprises, a plumbing retailer, is the lone tenant.
Most tenants in today's industrial market will move to existing buildings instead of having to build new, which they would have to do at Fancher Creek, said Nick Audino, commercial broker at CB Richard Ellis in Fresno.
"It was just sort of bad timing for Fancher Creek, but that park because of the unique amenities and the area will be poised to rebound much more quickly in the future," Audino said.
Kashian's development team acknowledges there is a risk with a town-center development as big as Fancher Creek.
There are few commercial developments under construction in Fresno. And those that were recently built are struggling to fill up.
"Is there a risk, yes, but it's worth it," said Sal Gonzalez, chief operating officer at Lance-Kashian. "We believe the customer is going to want it and be more sensitive to this development."
There is a movement to rejuvenate city centers or to build dynamic retail centers where there are interesting things for people to do other than just shop, said Larry Kosmont, an expert with the Counselor of Real Estate and president of Kosmont Companies, a Los Angeles real-estate consulting company.
The young generation and baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- are people who would be attracted to town center-developments that have libraries, parks, and entertainment, Kosmont said.
But these kinds of developments are a challenge in today's economy.
Tenants are hard to find, building loans are difficult to get, and the economy is not supporting new development.
Fancher Creek, however, might do better than other retail developments at this time because of its location, Kosmont said.
If the developer sees a need for retail development in that neighborhood because there is no service there currently, that could be a plus, he said.
"I think this is a development that has some vision and is looking to the future and not to the past," Kosmont said.