Ten thoughts on Thursday’s news conference at Granite Park in east-central Fresno.
The event’s topic: A proposed deal between City Hall and a local nonprofit to rehabilitate the 20-acre, city-owned site on Cedar Avenue, a mile south of Fresno State.
1. City officials and businessmen Terance Frazier and TJ Cox (representing Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, the developer) were all smiles.
Council Member Paul Caprioglio, who represents the area, called it a historic day.
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“Granite Park has a new beginning,” Caprioglio said. “Much like the phoenix, this area will be brought back to life.”
Mayor Ashley Swearengin echoed that theme.
“It gives me great pleasure to say these words: Granite Park will live again,” Swearengin said.
I hope they’re right.
2. The proposed deal is complex. In essence, the foundation agrees to invest $2.7 million in the failed sports complex. This investment will serve as rent for the life of the 25-year lease.
The city will throw in some money every year for a decade to help with things like maintenance. But this is offset by what the city already pays for keeping an eye on the site.
Bottom line: If the City Council approves the deal next Thursday, Fresno in 2016 should have ball fields and life where now there are weeds.
It’s a proposal the city cannot refuse.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin
All financial risk falls on the foundation.
Frazier joked about emerging from a meeting with city officials where details were hammered out: “I looked at TJ and said, ‘I think we need to change the deal. They are way too happy. It can’t be in our favor.’ ”
3. When the rebirth comes, Frazier said, the place won’t be called Granite Park.
He wasn’t joking this time.
4. Swearengin took office in January 2009 with a truck full of problems awaiting her attention.
But the Big Three – politically, if not financially – were the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Running Horse and Granite Park.
None were born on her watch. The Met and Granite Park, involving city-backed bank loans, would worsen in her early years. Running Horse was a private venture, but the disaster was of such a vast scale that, fair or not, it threatened City Hall’s credibility in west Fresno.
Thanks to developer Darius Assemi and the old Redevelopment Agency, the city block that was once home to The Met will soon be a stunning residential-commercial project.
Thanks to Council Member Oliver Baines, a handful of west Fresno leaders and Assemi, Running Horse was turned into an almond orchard called Mission Ranch.
And now, with about 15 months left in office, Swearengin is on the verge of eliminating Granite Park from that to-do list.
No wonder she was smiling.
5. And no wonder Swearengin on Thursday let it rip.
“Granite Park, since my first days in office, has become a symbol of the city trying and failing,” Swearengin said. “Granite Park is among a small handful of projects that often are referenced when you hear from the most cynical Fresnans: ‘That city can’t ever get anything right.’ It has become a symbol of ‘Good things can’t happen in our community.’
“Today that changes. Not just for Granite Park, but I really see (the proposal) as a turnaround for our community and a project that will bring benefits to residents in this area, to the entire city and our entire region.”
6. The news conference was actually another piece of a City Hall policy challenge that began at the end of World War II.
City Hall plans to build a small water-recycling plant at one end of Granite Park. This would provide ample nonpotable water for landscape irrigation.
Fresno State officials in the 1940s began looking at bigger sites for a new campus. Shields and Blackstone avenues was an early contender. By the early 1950s, Fresno State was planting roots at Cedar and Shaw avenues, way out in the country.
Everything in between was destined to go urban, including the 40-acre Harpain’s Dairy that is now Granite Park.
7. Harpain’s didn’t go easily.
This part of Fresno in the mid-1970s featured the Leaky Acres water-recharge basins to the east of Harpain’s, houses and Fresno State to the north, houses to the west and houses to the south.
The dairy by October 1977 was nearly a half-century old. The place was home to 167 cows and 198 heifers. The operation couldn’t grow. Its time was up.
“The whole thing has become obsolete,” owner Walt Harpain said as he closed the doors. The land was sold to investors.
8. What to do with 40 acres pretty much in the path of planes using Fresno-Yosemite International Airport to the east of Leaky Acres?
Houses, offices, an agriculture-themed museum were pitched. None stuck.
By 1997, the site had seemed to settle on its reason for existence. It would be a place of fun. Half would be athletic facilities. The other half would be restaurants, night spots and retail. Each half would feed the other.
City Hall ultimately would pay more than $5 million to retire a loan it had co-signed with the original developer. The city wouldn’t have had to go to the bond market to get the money if it had received a dime for every time someone used the word “synergy” in connection to Granite Park’s business model.
9. Council Member Lee Brand, who supports the deal, told me over the phone on Thursday: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Brand makes a good point.
Granite Park’s past is a graveyard for lofty dreams.
Developers nearly 20 years ago proposed building a 20-screen movie house on the site that is now Granite Park.
Looking ahead, Thursday’s council decision is a key step. Then Frazier and Cox need to execute. Money is always the main thing.
If Frazier and Cox do deliver within a year, the commercial side (privately owned) will take on added importance.
Swearengin is big into planning. The city retains ownership of the 20 acres. I can see a series of planning meetings for the entire 40 acres coming real soon.
10. My thoughts during Thursday’s news conference could have gone in many directions.
I thought of Nicole Zieba, who in March 2010 was Fresno’s deputy city manager. The Granite Park disaster was going full bore.
Somebody from the Swearengin administration had to go to the breezeway of the Fresno County Courthouse and represent City Hall at a public auction of Granite Park’s ball fields.
City officials were praying someone would show up with a suitcase full of $5 million. If not, the city (taxpayers) would have to fork over the money.
Of course, no one with a suitcase showed up. There was just Zieba and a bunch of reporters pursuing a fiasco.
Zieba (now Reedley’s city manager) was a trouper. She dismissed with a smile what one reporter called the “Granite Park curse.”
The place has all the makings of a beautiful jewel for Fresno, Zieba said.
“Ultimately, we will get there.”