Thousands celebrated Fulton Street's reopening. Six months later, where is everybody?

Only 500 people were expected at the grand reopening of Fulton Street in October, but more than 10,000 showed up.

They wanted to see what the $20 million fuss was all about — the new two-lane roadway, the restored art, and the promise of new businesses to revive downtown Fresno.

"Everyone seemed enthusiastic," said Janice Monson, 62, of northwest Fresno. But as she walked up and down Fulton that day and popped into the Goodwill store, Monson said she wondered, "When this goes away, who is going to come here, because there's nothing."

It's been six months since Fulton Street's big party and the next step of revitalization already is behind schedule. So far, the only activity has included a handful of new businesses, the sale of the Guarantee Savings building to State Center Community College District, and a once-monthly Saturday night car cruise that started this month.

Dozens of ground floor spaces remain vacant. Few property owners want to be the first to make expensive changes. The excitement of opening day has fizzled, with people wondering what's next — and how long will it take until throngs of people crowd Fulton Street again.

Great expectations

"Opening day was a huge success," said Craig Scharton, downtown's biggest cheerleader and interim director of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, which organized Fulton Street's grand reopening. "It was an important time to celebrate a major accomplishment in our community."

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The official ribbon-cutting as downtown Fresno celebrated Fulton Street’s grand reopening to vehicle traffic Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Visitors got to see a 240-vehicle parade, 25 bands, 15 pop-up businesses in vacant storefronts and a glimpse of what Fulton Street could be like in four years. That's the amount of time it took for revitalization in 90 percent of the cities nationwide that have reopened pedestrian malls to traffic, Scharton said.

But in Kalamazoo, Mich., where the nation's first pedestrian mall was installed in 1959 and ripped out in 1998, it's "taken 15 years to get to where we are now," said Andrew Haan, president of Downtown Kalamazoo, the nonprofit organization focused on economic development.

"We have dozens of restaurants, a number of breweries and bars and other nighttime opportunities," Haan said. "Retail has continued to hang on."

Kraig Kojian is the head of Downtown Long Beach, which did not have a pedestrian mall but has experienced a downtown renaissance. He said he could not provide a timeline for when a redeveloping downtown can expect to claim success because redevelopment is never done.

"We're stewards of our downtown. Our job is to create a better community and hand off a better community when someone (else) takes over," Kojian said.

Fulton Street certainly has plenty of fans waiting eagerly for the signs of success. Andrew Vargas, 28, had never cared much about downtown Fresno because he didn't know anything about it. But when the Huntington Boulevard resident joined Scharton's monthly Fulton Mall tour on one Saturday, he was hooked.

"The second I went there and saw the vision — the possibility of what (Fulton) could be — I instantly got more engaged," said Vargas, who volunteered to help in the information booth on Fulton's reopening day. But when Vargas arrived toting his camera, he abandoned his duties to soak it all in, shooting photos of the crowd, the buildings and the parade.

"If we want this to be good, our attitude can’t be that it's a failure six months into it," Vargas said. "We have to go and get our hair cut down there. We go eat food (there) and show that there's business potential down there. It will happen. It’s going to take time and will take all of us to invest in it."

Losing momentum

Since October, there has only been one event promoting the newly opened street. The annual Downtown Fresno Christmas Parade returned to Fulton (its original route) in December. Sure, there was FresYes Fest at Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co., the Fresno Football Club soccer games and the Fresno Grizzlies baseball games at Chukchansi Park that have attracted thousands of folks downtown, but nothing focused on Fulton Street.

Scharton acknowledged the partnership had no plan or schedule of events to keep the momentum going after the opening. A calendar of events should have been put together late last summer for the upcoming year, he said, but the agency was "crushing it to get an opening done and turning around to get the Christmas Parade done." Now there's a lag as the partnership waits for its new director, James Cerracchio, who starts at the end of April.

"We wasted a lot of momentum, in my opinion," Scharton said.

Last weekend, the partnership started its "Draggin' the Main Cruise Night" with cars rolling down Fulton Street — classics to customs to low-riders and more. It will happen the second Saturday of every month, starting two hours before sunset and ending two hours after. And social media posts show Fulton Live and the partnership are trying to schedule live music every third Friday of the month at select Fulton Street venues. A Fulton Street Fashion Show is planned for May 3 at Fulton and Mariposa.

Lisa Short, 53, thought there would have been an outdoor New Year's party in January or a family oriented event by now that would have blocked off Fulton Street and brought in bands and food trucks. Short, who lives in the Tower District, was a vendor in the Craftapalooza pop-up that operated in the Helm Building on reopening day.

"I was here in October and it was just crazy and amazing," said Short, who makes stuffed dolls and fuzzy monsters. Forty to 50 people flowed in and out of the space all day. Short said she heard the fire marshal had to ask people to leave some of the pop-up locations because of overcrowding.

She came back in December for a holiday ArtHop organized by Ideaworks. "It was slow. It was amazingly slow, like 1 percent of the people that were there in October," Short said. "They still don't have the foot traffic. That is a shame."

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Nina and Jeff Kenny pose for a photo as pedestrians check out newly reopened Fulton Street on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

There's no denying that the Fulton Street shops are more visible now that two-way vehicle traffic has returned. The parking meters are usually full. The artwork has never looked better.

"I really didn’t expect the artwork to be different or so vibrant," said Kasey Madden, 30, who lives in the Tower District. "To see the artwork as intended was a wonderful surprise and really beautiful."

Madden, a local artist and downtown supporter, is waiting for the retail, restaurants and bars to follow. She attended many of the early meetings at City Hall about Fulton and said the project was pitched in a way that made people believe that once Fulton opened "all these businesses will open, but that wasn’t the case."

"I understand revitalization takes a while," Madden said. But "we all figured it would happen right away."

Fresno mayor Lee Brand said people shouldn't expect miracles overnight. "There are works in progress right now (but) it takes a while," he said.

"Market forces always drive things. I can't wave my magic wand and say, 'Tom Richards, gut your building and build out,' " Brand said, referring to the owner of the Bank of Italy building.

Who owns what on the former Fulton Mall?

There are 49 pieces of property along the six-block stretch of the former Fulton Mall that reopened as Fulton Street in downtown Fresno. Click on the marker to see details for each parcel. Markers are green for local ownership, red for out-of-town owners, and yellow for government agencies. Tim Sheehan/The Fresno Bee

But Brand does want to "nudge" owners to do something to improve their properties to attract more tenants. "I'm contacting property owners and saying, 'Hey, you can't sit on this thing forever. You've got to do something,' " he said. "You can't force them ... (but) I don't want people to get in and sit on it and wait for the market. They've got to take some initiative."

One of City Hall's first steps to move the needle on Fulton Street is enforcement of building codes. "We've gone out to all of the buildings and identified about 100 violations, primarily exterior violations, and we're down to about 25 now," Brand said. "My goal in the next 30 to 60 days is to have just about everybody but one or two in compliance."

The former JCPenney building at Fulton and Tulare streets has been boarded up for years. Los Angeles investor Shay Maghame pitched his plans in 2003 to turn the six-story building into a commercial and residential gem with rooftop bars overlooking the stadium. But he's been unable to get the money needed for development — up to $60 million, Maghame said.

"Believe me, I would like to start construction on this soon. Hopefully, we will," Maghame said. "I'm not happy about the condition it's in."

Los Angeles-based developer Sevak Khatchadourian has built lofts and renovated commercial space in the iconic Pacific Southwest Building since 2011. He also owns the nearby Helm Building. Khatchadourian said he welcomes more involvement by the city to encourage the efforts of Fulton property owners.

"I wish all the property owners can get together and make a plan to improve on all of our buildings," he said. "It would be a win-win situation for everyone. That would be an ideal goal."

Katchadourian wants to fill the Pacific Southwest Building with tenants before he moves ahead with plans for the Helm Building. He said phone calls and inquiries about both locations have quadrupled since Fulton Street opened.

"Now I think it's up to the developers and investors to act upon this," he said. "There are some passive developers and there are some active developers. The passive developers are still sitting, not doing anything. The active developers are pursuing those phone calls; they're making business out of these calls."

The pioneers

The active players include the owners of Los Panchos Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, who started building an outdoor patio in mid-March after a seven-month wait for a construction permit from the city. Robert Gurfield, a property owner, is fixing up one of three buildings he owns at Fulton and Mariposa streets, on what has become known as Renoir Corner. His new tenants include The Chicken Shack and Toshiko Japanese Cuisine. Both have plans for outdoor patios.

So far, about a handful of new restaurants are expected on Fulton Street. The T.W. Patterson Building owner, Rick Roush, is in negotiations with a tenant for the restaurant space on the ground floor. Uptown Nutrition drink shop opened quietly the day after the street's grand reopening near Take 3. Jungle Hut Floral opened in February.

Casa de Tamales and Parsley Garden Cafe shut their doors soon after the street reopened.

Phase one of the South Stadium Project has started with demolition of two buildings on Fulton north of Inyo Street. But the developers, Terance Frazier and Mehmet Noyan, have quashed plans for the much anticipated public market planned for the city-owned portion of the Gottschalks building across the street. It doesn't make economic sense at this point, Noyan said.

One of the biggest announcements for Fulton so far is the sale of the nearly century-old, 12-story Guarantee building to State Center Community College District for use as its district office. Employees are expected to move in by the end of this year. The Internal Revenue Service currently occupies three floors in the building.

A walk down Fulton Street shows at least 30 vacant ground floor spaces, but only 18 are rentable storefronts, Scharton said.

"That should be the focus from here on, filling those ground-floor vacancies with active dining, entertainment, retail, bars, art galleries, fun shops," Scharton said. "The kinds of things everybody enjoys in every good downtown."

What do people want to see? Boutiques, gift shops, an art gallery, a farmer's market, restaurants and bars.

"We can all go to River Park. We can go to Clovis and go to the Ultas and the Home Goods and the Joanns," Short said. "I’d love to see boutiques. I would love to see unique and creative stuff … and they should appeal to the general public."

The city's former film commissioner, Ray Arthur, is confident Fulton Street will be a success. The 67-year-old Sunnyside resident ate lunch in downtown Fresno every day when he worked at City Hall and still frequents Fulton Street restaurants now. Arthur was among the thousands who crowded Fulton on reopening day.

"Get the landlords who own those buildings to become more active and attract different types of retail business to downtown," Arthur said. "I’m confident that's going to happen. Now starts the hard work."

Staff writers Tim Sheehan and Marek Warszawski contributed to the story. BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee
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