The two candidates to become Fresno’s next mayor faced off Wednesday evening to discuss issues related to the city’s downtown core. About 100 people joined hopefuls Henry Perea and Lee Brand for the 90-minute forum at Warnors Theatre – their third opportunity this week to argue about their respective positions.
Perea and Brand are running in the Nov. 8 general election to succeed two-term and termed-out Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
Brand, a real-estate businessman, is wrapping up his second four-year term on the Fresno City Council representing District 6, the northeastern part of the city. Perea is a member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, coming to the end of his second term in the District 3 board seat representing metropolitan central and south-central areas of Fresno. Perea previously served six years on the Fresno City Council.
Perea was the top vote-getter in the June primary election from a field of five candidates but fell short of an outright majority of the votes cast. That forced a runoff with Brand, who came in second in the June vote.
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Once Fresno Bee political reporter John Ellis and Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins began asking questions, it didn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two candidates.
Brand and Perea agreed on the importance of downtown revitalization in their respective administrations if elected, pledging to see that it remained a priority at City Hall. But on the specific issue of a property assessment district, for which property owners on Fulton Mall – now being converted to Fulton Street – and adjacent blocks pay an assessment to support marketing efforts, security and other improvements, Brand and Perea clashed on who was more supportive of continuing the program.
Perea said he supports an extension of the assessment district beyond its current expiration date of 2022. Brand said he voted for the program as a council member when it was launched in 2010, and for its extension in 2015, but declared that Perea “voted to kill it” as a member of the board of supervisors.
Perea responded that his board had concerns about tangible goals and accountability for the money paid by participating property owners, and that those questions were ultimately addressed. “Do I support it? Yes,” Perea told Brand. “Do you support it? Yes. So are we good?”
When I started (on the city council) in 2009, I was a skeptic about downtown revitalization. Ashley Swearengin convinced me about the progress possible in the area, and
Mayoral candidate Lee Brand
One of the most heated exchanges came over a question about Fresno’s homeless, who at one time were concentrated in several large makeshift encampments that were eventually eliminated by the city, with the effect of dispersing them throughout the city.
Perea described the disruption of the homeless camps as a major mistake by the city because it scattered the population throughout the community. “You can find people now all the way in the San Joaquin River bottom,” he said. “They’re all over.” Perea added that the city has done some good things to reduce homelessness, “but it doesn’t feel like it because now we’re feeling that dispersal.”
Perea called for the establishment of emergency shelters with counseling services “to get people off the streets with dignity.”
Brand said Fresno’s homeless problem was “aided and abetted by terrible decisions in Sacramento,” including Proposition 47, which reduced state prison populations by transferring jurisdiction of some offenders from the state corrections department to county probation. The measure is blamed by many in law enforcement for putting more criminals on the streets not only in Fresno, but other cities across the state.
Perea chastised Brand for linking the two problems. “The homeless are not criminals. They are people who have lost jobs and are on the street, mentally ill, people who need help,” he said. “Don’t criminalize them, Lee.”
Brand allowed that the homeless population includes people in need of mental health treatment and people with drug problems, and that the city and other agencies “need to work together to triage and treat these people.” But the criminal element among the homeless, he asserted, cannot be ignored. “There’s tough love and then there’s treatment,” Brand said. “There are people out there committing crimes, stealing cars, breaking into houses. … We can’t ignore what Sacramento does that has a direct impact on Fresno.”
The candidates also traded verbal blows as they vied to demonstrate who would be the strongest proponent of continued development efforts downtown.
“When I started (on the city council) in 2009, I was a skeptic about downtown revitalization,” said Brand. But, he added, “Ashley Swearengin convinced me about the progress possible in the area, and I came on board and have supported it since then.”
Brand added that he has been impressed by the growth of the local technology company Bitwise Industries, which started out in a cramped building at the northern fringe of downtown but last year opened a 50,000-square-foot building that is filled with technology business tenants. “I’m beginning to believe there is success out there,” Brand said.
Perea touted his own work as a city council member from 1997 through 2002 on planning efforts that included downtown Fresno. “I was never a skeptic of downtown,” he said to counter Brand. “I was always there.”
Perea touted his steadfast support for California’s high-speed rail program and the potential for a passenger station downtown to serve as a hub for the district and to become an impetus for continued development and investment.
On a question to Perea about his support as a member of the county Board of Supervisors for allowing growth in the Friant Corridor north of Fresno, Perea responded that the area is not part of the city’s formal sphere of influence for development. “The reason the board commissioned a study for the Friant Corridor is that there are about 4,000 applications for permits,” Perea said. The goal, he said, was to create a planning format to prevent runaway development in the area.
As mayor, Perea added, a different set of priorities would apply. “I have no desire to develop outside the sphere of influence,” he said. “The city has a general plan that we have to live by.”
Brand accused Perea of flip-flopping on the development issue, arguing that Perea’s votes as a county supervisor have to be considered by voters. “We have to reconcile our actions as legislators with the promises we make as candidates,” he told Perea. “You supported growth in the Friant Corridor and in Madera County that is detrimental to the city of Fresno. … That’s inconsistent with what you’re saying now.”
Brand pointed to his own role crafting ordinances to promote more economic development in challenged areas as evidence of his own commitment to downtown.
I was never a skeptic of downtown. I was always there.
Mayoral candidate Henry Perea
Both candidates agreed that a planned high-speed train station at Mariposa Street between G and H streets has the potential to be a catalyst for growth and development throughout downtown.
Perea said that in a visit to high-speed rail stations in Spain earlier this year, he saw firsthand how they are hubs for retail and other economic activity in downtown centers. “A station makes a statement for the community,” he said. “There will be a lot of retail space around it, a lot of people living around it.” And, Perea added, it can serve as a connection between an artistic district at the north end of downtown with a sports and entertainment district at the south end around the Chukchansi Park baseball stadium, the Fresno Convention Center and other planned developments south of the stadium.
“There’s no question in my mind, (downtown) is going to be a mix of a lot of things (with) different areas for different things.”
Brand concurred that the rail station will be an important part of downtown development efforts, particularly as one end of a Mariposa Mall strip leading from Fulton Street. Brand said such a corridor can “hopefully be something comparable to River Park,” the popular regional shopping center at the north end of Fresno with a movie theater, restaurants and boutique shops.
But, he added, the restoration of Fulton Street after 50 years as a pedestrian-only mall “is the heart (and) will be a focal point.”
“The South Stadium project is moving forward,” Brand added. “Now we’re trying to put the pieces in place that tie in the use of the stadium, the convention center, Fulton Street, high-speed rail and Chinatown. All of those will be part of a renaissance of downtown.”
The Bee, One Putt Broadcasting and the Downtown Fresno Partnership sponsored Wednesday’s forum.