Residents forge ahead to fix Fresno parks despite city’s cash-strapped situation. Here’s how

Saint Rest Baptist Church breaks ground on a community center and park

Despite the loss of Measure P for Fresno park funding, the church's economic development corporation rallied with church leaders, community members and sponsors to find funding for the first phase of much needed green space to southwest Fresno.
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Despite the loss of Measure P for Fresno park funding, the church's economic development corporation rallied with church leaders, community members and sponsors to find funding for the first phase of much needed green space to southwest Fresno.

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While the city of Fresno remains cash-strapped to improve conditions at its parks, neighborhoods and community organizations are setting out on their own to build new parks.

Case in point: Community leaders Tuesday broke ground at southwest Fresno’s Saint Rest Baptist Church for a $1.4 million project that will include a new park and youth community center.

The project was made possible through a community development corporation, grants from partner organizations and a small loan from Self-Help Federal Credit Union.

“Today is a beautiful example of community doing their part and taking action for the health and the betterment of their neighborhoods,” Fresno Building Healthy Communities president and CEO Sandra Celedon said at Saint Rest’s ground breaking.

“It’s about the vision that every child in every neighborhood of our city should have access to a quality recreational space that doesn’t just serve as a patch of grass,” she said.

The efforts by the community members to address the city’s parks situation comes in the aftermath of Measure P, which failed to pass on the November ballot.

Measure P sparked a citywide discussion about park conditions, and how to fund improvements and the building of new parks in southern neighborhoods that lack green space.

Measure P proposed a 3/8-cent sales tax that would’ve generated $37.5 million annually for 30 years for Fresno parks and cultural arts. The ballot measure received about 52 percent “yes” votes, falling short of the two-thirds majority the city said it needed to pass.

Although Measure P supporters included some of the city’s top power players, city leaders such as Mayor Lee Brand and Police Chief Jerry Dyer campaigned against it. They argued passing Measure P would diminish the chances of a public safety tax also passing.

Despite Measure P’s failure and the city’s budget shortcomings, residents across the city are pressing forward anyway by seeking Proposition 68 funding through community development corporations.

Prop 68 is a $4 billion statewide bond passed by California voters in 2018 to fund local parks, environmental protection projects, water infrastructure projects, and flood protection projects.

Community development corporations are nonprofits that provide services and promote community development in a small geographical location.

Many of the neighborhoods pursuing new park projects through community development corporations and Prop 68 are in the southern parts of the city, where support for Measure P was stronger.

FRS_strestdedication01 (3)
Community leaders, VIP’s, supporters, church members and friends help break ground on the first phase of a community center and park at Saint Rest Baptist Church in southwest Fresno on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Despite the failure of Measure P to fund city parks in Fresno, the church economic development corporation was able to push forward on funding and grants to get a green space for neighborhood families. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Other parks plans by residents

At least three efforts similar to Saint Rest are underway throughout the city.

For example, neighbors in the south Tower District partnered with the Lowell Community Development Corporation to apply for Prop 68 funding build a park on Broadway Street. This summer, residents are hosting a series of community meetings to plan the design and concept of the park.

In the neighborhood near Webster Elementary near downtown Fresno, residents are working with the property owner of a vacant parcel and organizations like Martin Park and Every Neighborhood Partnership in hopes of building a park on East Tyler Avenue near the freeway interchange for Highway 41 and Highway 180.

And in southeast Fresno, a group of volunteers partnered with the city of Fresno to care for an abandoned U.S. Department of Agriculture research site. They plan to seek Prop 68 funding to transform the 49 acres into a soccer complex.

“The fact that there are so many communities doing the same thing and going after Prop 68 funds in support of neighborhood parks just shows that all that organizing and momentum created by Measure P wasn’t for nothing,” said Esther Carver, the executive director of the Lowell CDC.

“We’re still seeing great things coming out of it. Residents are more excited to say, ‘Hey, if the city is not going to do this for us, we’re going to find other ways to make it happen,’” she said.

Prop 68 funds as an alternative

This year, the city’s proposed budget for Parks, After school, Recreation and Community Services (PARCS) is up 4.6 percent to $32 million.

City leaders have acknowledged the city’s parks are in shambles but say the city doesn’t generate enough revenue to make improvements to both parks and public safety.

The current proposed parks budget provides for a new BMX park at Mary Ella Brown Community Center and play areas for toddlers at Tupman Park off of Ventura Street, Dickey Playground and JSK Parks and other improvements.

As an alternative to funds from the city budget, pursuing Prop 68 funding could be a particularly effective way to build parks because the application process calls for community engagement, said Artie Padilla, executive direction or Every Neighborhood Partnership. He also sits on the board of the Saint Rest EDC.

“Just building green space doesn’t mean people are going to use it,” he said. “It really needs to be intentional, with community investment.”

During budget hearings this month, the Fresno City Council has moved to allocate additional funding to parks. Some of that money could go toward the soccer complex.

The city also contributed about $100,000 to the Saint Rest project. Councilmember Garry Bredefeld argued that if the city really prioritized public safety, any additional money should go toward the police or fire department.

Despite that debate, residents are moving forward to build new parks, without relying on the city as the primary funding source.

“I think there’s a lot of passion in the neighborhood around making things happen,” said Kiel Lopez-Schmidt, who is leading the effort for the Broadway Parque.

“We acknowledge the city can’t do everything alone. There’s a lot of big challenges, and we’re stepping up to help with the solution,” he said.

“We want that to be acknowledged and welcomed as part of how we build a better city.”

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.