Fresno has taken back one park already from developer. Is Granite Park next?

Nearly three years ago, the city of Fresno took a bold step in fixing its unfortunate past with Granite Park by signing an agreement to turn over control of the sports park to developers Terance Frazier and TJ Cox.

Frazier and Cox promised to invest $2.7 million to renovate three dilapidated ballfields and build a restaurant, basketball and volleyball courts, jogging trails and other amenities to end years of blight at the 20-acre park in east-central Fresno.

In return, the city agreed to a 25-year lease that paid Frazier’s nonprofit, Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, $150,000 a year for 10 years to help with staffing and maintenance.

It was suppose to be a win-win situation with no risk to the city.

But the public-private partnership might be over: City officials are mulling whether to break the agreement with Frazier and Cox because of unfilled promises — the restaurant, sports courts and jogging trails have not been built. The December 2015 agreement called for the restaurant and other amenities to be built within two years.

The apparent crack in the partnership was revealed Monday when Frazier told The Bee the city is auditing his nonprofit expenditures at Granite Park. Frazier said he is cooperating with the audit, saying, “I have nothing to hide.”

City spokesman Mark Standriff said the audit was in response to Frazier asking for an additional $150,000 a year from the city to operate Granite Park. Standriff said he could not comment further until the audit is completed.

Out at Al Radka Park

Frazier’s request for more money for Granite Park comes at the same time that the city has informed him that he will no longer operate two baseball fields at Al Radka Park in southeast Fresno.

In January 2016, Frazier embraced former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Adopt-A-Park program, obtaining priority rights to Al Radka Park’s two ballfields for his other nonprofit, Central California Baseball Academy. Under an agreement, Frazier paid $2,000 a year to the city and promised to maintain and repair the ballfields.

But in recent months, residents had complained that Frazier had locked up the ballfields, giving neighborhood kids no access to them, said Councilman Luis Chavez, whose district includes Radka Park. On Monday, the city took Al Radka Park back from Frazier.

“I’m happy to have the park back,” Chavez said this week. “The park should be open to everyone, especially since taxpayers pay for them.”

In a telephone interview, Frazier said City Hall is playing “political games” with him. He said he agreed to take over Al Radka Park when “the city cried it was broke” and couldn’t do it. “I adopted the park because I wanted kids to have a safe, clean place to play,” he said. “The city should be thanking me because I’m the one who stepped forward when no one else would.

“Now, they are trying to make me out to be the bad guy,” Frazier said.

According to Frazier, he got on Chavez’s bad side when he told neighborhood residents who wanted to use the Al Radka ballfields that they needed insurance in case someone got hurt. But Chavez said Frazier’s actions of putting locks on the ballfields was not part of the written agreement between Frazier and the city.

Frazier said the locks were intended to keep the homeless, drug addicts and vandals away from the ballfields. In the nearly two years of operating the ballfields, Frazier said he had invested more than $100,000 to maintain and repair the ballfields. Now that the city has reclaimed the park, Frazier said he wonders if he will get his investment back.

In reclaiming the park, city staff cut off Frazier’s locks. In response, Frazier said he went to the park to get video evidence and discovered the city had put its own locks on the ballfields. In the video, he pointed out that the city had done a shoddy job of maintaining the soccer fields at Al Radka Park.

“Obviously there is something else going on,” Frazier says in the video.

But Mayor Lee Brand said it was Frazier’s idea to return Al Radka Park to the city. According to Brand, Frazier sent an email to Brand, Chavez and others on Sept. 6, saying, “If the city wants to take over maintenance and managing the park, I will be more than happy to turn in the keys today.”

“After discussion with Council member Chavez and others, it was decided that the City would take Mr. Frazier up on his offer and assume control of the management and maintenance of Al Radka Park,” the mayor said in an email.

“There are no other agendas here,” Brand said. “One of our most important jobs as public servants for the people of Fresno is to provide them with a safe City and safe and well-maintained parks.”

Partnership at Granite Park

Granite Park also is a public park, but Frazier said the city was more than willing to turn it over to him and Cox. Because the city’s $150,000 a year contribution isn’t enough to operate it, Frazier said he has to charge an entrance fee of $3 to $5 depending on the event. “I’m losing $20,000 a month on Granite Park,” Frazier said.

Granite Park has a prime location on Cedar Avenue, south of Ashlan Avenue, about a mile from Fresno State and just off Highway 168. But it also has a long history of financial troubles.

The city co-signed a $5 million bank loan more than a decade ago to help the original developer, Milt Barbis, build a regional destination for sports, restaurants and shops. But the developer went belly up, and the city got stuck with the property and the $5 million bill.

Over the years, other developers have come with ideas to revive the park, but none of them advanced until Frazier and Cox came along. The partnership appeared ideal — Frazier, a former Fresno State baseball star, is chief executive officer of TFS Investments, and Cox is president of a multimillion-dollar business called Central Valley NMTC, LLC. Cox is running for Congress against Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

Frazier, 49, is well known at City Hall because he has plans to develop a major residential and commercial complex south of Chukchansi Park. He also is dating Council President Esmeralda Soria.

The Granite Park softball complex sits in front of what will become a new soccer field complex at the facility in Fresno on Friday, June 29, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Frazier is president of the Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Granite Park; Cox is the secretary/treasurer. The nonprofit also owns Gateway Ice Center, a skating rink on Marks Avenue north of Clinton Avenue and west of Highway 99.

Frazier said the nonprofit has benefited from low-interest loans and grants from Central Valley NMTC, LLC, which stands for New Markets Tax Credit. The business allocates federal tax credits to individuals or corporate investors who make investments in poor communities.

On its website, Central Valley NMTC says it ”provided critical working capital and acquisition financing, which allowed the CVCSF to secure a $2.5 million donation of equipment, fixtures and supplies necessary to maintain operations at the facility.”

For Granite Park, the website says, “Central Valley NMTC provided pre-development funding and secured construction and permanent financing.” Frazier said Cox helped him get a $1.5 million loan from Clearinghouse Community Development Financial Institution to renovate the Granite Park fields and concession stand.

In all, Frazier said he and Cox have invested more than $2 million into Granite Park.

Developer Terance Frazier stands behind the bar in one of the rooms in his Broadway Event Center, located just south of Chukchansi Park, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The center features large warehouse rooms for corporate events or parties. It is possibly the first step to realizing Frazier's dream of creating a housing, retail and entertainment superblock near Chukchansi Park. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Trouble with the DOJ?

The city revisiting the Granite Park agreement comes at a bad time for Frazier. On Aug. 29, the California Department of Justice informed Frazier and Cox that they are delinquent in filing an IRS Form 990 that shows how Central Valley Community Sports Foundation spent its money in 2016. The DOJ letter says failing to submit the form could lead to the nonprofit losing its ability to solicit or disburse charitable funds.

Frazier said the delinquency notice is no big deal. The state agency has given them an extension to file the paperwork. The nonprofit remains in good standing with the California Secretary of State, state records show.

Though Frazier fears the city wants to take over Granite Park, Cox said he was unaware of any move by the city to do that. Cox also said he saw nothing wrong with his Central Valley NMTC helping Central Valley Community Sports Foundation financially.

Frazier said the DOJ delinquency letter concerns Gateway Ice Center’s financial documents, not Granite Park’s. He blames his former business partners, Sammy and Rachel Franco, for stirring up trouble for him at City Hall. The Francos discovered the DOJ delinquency letter online and have given it to city officials.

Frazier said he hopes the city will give him a fair shake once the audit is completed. He said the nonprofit has fulfilled the spirit of the agreement investing more than $2 million into Granite Park. And since its grand opening in March 2017, Frazier said, more than 300,000 people have come to Granite Park to play softball and baseball in leagues and tournaments. “People are coming to Fresno from all over,” he said. “The city should be thanking me for filling hotels and restaurants.”

Frazier said it would be unfair for the city to end the agreement just because he didn’t hit the two-year deadline to build the restaurant, basketball and volleyball courts and jogging trails. The two-year deadline, he said, is unrealistic.

“The restaurant didn’t pencil out,” Frazier said, so if it was built, it would have been another financial drain on Granite Park.

“I’ve done everything in my power to make Granite Park a success,” he said.

Council support

In June, Frazier announced plans to add 12 new soccer fields. During the announcement, Councilman Paul Caprioglio stood in Frazier’s corner, praising the public-private partnership. “Before we had expectations,” said Caprioglio, whose council district includes Granite Park. “Today, we have reality.”

The soccer fields, however, are not part of the agreement Frazier signed with the city. It’s unclear whether Caprioglio still supports Frazier and Cox; he referred questions about Granite Park to the mayor’s office.

Councilman Oliver Baines said he supports Frazier’s and Cox’s efforts to revitalize Granite Park. Baines, who is on the Central Valley NMTC advisory board, said the two developers have made a “big investment” in a city asset. “They stepped in to help us when the city couldn’t do it,” Baines said.

Baines said the $150,000 that the city gives Frazier and Cox annually to maintain Granite Park is a bargain. Before the developers took over, the city was spending $180,000 a year to maintain Granite Park while it was closed for years, Baines said.

Baines, who was interviewed Friday, said he was unaware of the city’s audit of Frazier’s nonprofit. “I don’t know why we would be upset with them, especially since the city hasn’t done everything, either,” he said.

According to the agreement, the city was supposed to provide “purple water” to irrigate the Granite Park fields. Baines said that has not been done. The agreement also called for the city to erect a freeway billboard at Granite Park, which could bring in about $60,000 a year. That was not done, either, Baines said.

Frazier said the purple water would have saved him thousands of dollars in water bills. The billboard would have given Granite Park the financial boost to lower admission fees, he said.

Baines said he plans to investigate the dispute. “Once I know all the facts, I will do what’s best for the community,” he said.

According to Frazier, he had every intention to fulfill the agreement’s promises. He said he spent tens of thousands of dollars on a feasibility study for the restaurant and its design, but once the study was completed, he realized the marketplace couldn’t support it.

Frazier contends he and former City Manager Bruce Rudd, who signed the December 2015 agreement for the city, had “an understanding” that would have allowed Frazier to amend the agreement to install such amenities as soccer fields to make Granite Park financially stable. He also said that when he signed the agreement, he didn’t fully understand the problems with Granite Park.

“Granite Park was boarded-up and filled with weeds and trash,” Frazier said. There also was missing or faulty electrical wires and plumbing, he said. Other challenges included securing a loan and working with the city to pull permits. He said Rudd assured him that the city would help him.

Bruce Rudd’s perspective

In a telephone interview this week, Rudd, who left City Hall in April, said he told Frazier he could amend the agreement as long as he had City Council approval. Rudd also said he warned Frazier that the two-year deadline to build a restaurant, basketball and volleyball courts and jogging trails were lofty goals.

“I told him he should do it in phases,” Rudd recalled. But Frazier didn’t heed the advice; the two-year-deadline was written into the agreement at Frazier’s insistence because he and Cox were gung-ho about the project, Rudd said. “Terance and TJ were both pretty confident that they could get it done,” Rudd said.

In making promises, Frazier likely didn’t understand the Fresno market, Rudd said. He was counting on people coming to Granite Park and staying there to watch games and eat at the restaurant. But in tough economic times, families conserve their money by bringing their own water and soft drinks and eating sandwiches or barbecuing in the parking lot, Rudd said.

Then-city manager Bruce Rudd, right, joins Fresno City Councilmembers Paul Caprioglio and Esmeralda Soria at a 2015 City Hall ceremony. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA Vida en el Valle file

Frazier admits to underestimating the Granite Park marketplace. But he said the city should share some of the blame. The $150,000 city contribution is only for 10 years, so the bank is making him pay $18,000 a month to cover the $1.5 million loan. If the city had promised to contribute during the length of the 25-year agreement, Frazier said his monthly loan payment would be cut in half, giving him enough financial cushion to build the promised amenities.

The city audit, he said, has caused him to reflect on public-private partnership for parks. “I don’t support them for parks,” he said.

That’s because while growing up in Oakland, he said he went to parks to play, but also to get free lunch and help with homework. “Parks played a vital role in my life. That’s why I have such a passion for them,” he said.

Parks, he said, are the city’s responsibility. “The city should be ashamed of spending only 4 percent of its general fund on parks,” he said. “Other cities spend much more because they understand the value of parks.”

Frazier said he supports Measure P, the Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative that is on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the initiative will provide a guaranteed, local funding source for Fresno parks through a 3/8-cent sales tax in the city of Fresno. Brand and others oppose Measure P.

Frazier said he often wonders if his support of the initiative got him in trouble at City Hall.

“I’m not giving up on Granite Park,” he said. “Me and TJ are doing a public service by keeping it going until the parks initiative gets passed.”

He said all he needs is a little more financial help from the city.

“Granite Park is the city’s baby,” he said. “I adopted it. Now it’s time for the city to pay a little more child support.”

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