Coalition wants to reduce economic inequality. A new grant may help that effort

An ambitious 10-year effort to increase economic and racial equity in the central San Joaquin Valley received a significant boost Tuesday with a $50,000 grant from Bank of America.

The grant awarded to the Central Valley Community Foundation is part of the bank’s nationwide Neighborhood Champions award program. The foundation will use the money to establish a continuing database to help it gauge the success of a collaborative, 10-year economic development project called the Fresno DRIVE Initiative, said Ashley Swearengin, the foundation’s CEO.

“We will put in place the measurements that are needed to track our progress along the way over the next decade,” Swearengin said. “Gone are the days of lofty goals that don’t actually have measurements and precise ways to measure progress along the way.”

Mark Riley, area market president for Bank of America, described the foundation as a relatively simple choice for the company’s grant award. The organization, he said, is “impactful and financially savvy, with a proven track record of delivering measurable impact and understanding the greatest needs in our community.”

The community foundation is shepherding a group of about 150 public and private community organizations working together toward “an enormous 10-year goal of lifting the economic region of the central San Joaquin Valley and ensuring that the residents of our community benefit from that upward economic growth,” Swearengin said.

Swearengin, who served two terms as Fresno’s mayor before joining the foundation in 2017, acknowledged that Fresno and the Valley have for decades engaged in planning to improve the economic fortunes of the region. Fresno DRIVE, she said, is different because it focuses not only on business or industry, but on the needs of residents and the racial and economic disparities in opportunities that they experience.

Fresno a ‘both/and’ region

Swearengin described the Fresno region as an area with a “both/and” character – a place that has “both” significant potential “and” daunting challenges. She touted the region’s younger population, entrepreneurship, agricultural leadership and decreasing unemployment, but also noted research by the Urban Institute indicating that Fresno has “the greatest racial and economic disparity in all of California and almost the greatest in the U.S.”

“That was an alarm bell like no other,” she said.

The idea of disparity in economic opportunities, however, is nothing new for Fresno. Alan Autry often spoke of a “tale of two cities” in describing a north/south economic divide in the city during both his campaign for and eight-year tenure as Fresno’s mayor from 2001 through 2008. Swearengin succeeded Autry as mayor from 2009 through 2016.

Prior regional economic efforts of recent decades, such as the Regional Jobs Initiative which Swearengin co-founded in 2002 and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s creation in 2005 of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, dealt with broad ideas for improving the climate for business and industry in the Valley.

Fresno DRIVE departs from those earlier programs because “bringing the discipline of an investment-worthy, investment-grade plan to the center is something we’ve never done before,” Swearengin said. “We’ve talked in the past about ideas and strategies, but it’s never been done with the discipline of how to attract financial support for the idea. … Actually figuring out how to financially advance good ideas, that’s really going to be the key to make sure these things happen.”

Such investment, she added, will likely come from a combination of resources, including federal and state government agencies for infrastructure and higher-education resources; philanthropy both within the state and from across the country, “impact” investors willing to take a below-market rate of return to advance worthy efforts; and ultimately, private investment “toward the end of the decade and if we’ve done things well and right.”

Summit Nov. 7-8 in Fresno

The Fresno DRIVE coalition will formally unveil a draft slate of 18 specific economic initiatives at the California Economic Summit, to be held Nov. 7-8 in Fresno. Those plans will include innovation, research and development, and developing a new industry “that leverages our production agriculture and food presence but pivots toward precision food innovation and technology.”

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.