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Fresno celebrates ‘renaissance’ in downtown revitalization

Aaron Blair, chief executive officer and executive director of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, addresses the next speaker during Downtown Fresno Partnership’s first quarter 2016 State of Downtown event held in the Warnors Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday evening, March 30, 2016 in downtown Fresno, Calif.
Aaron Blair, chief executive officer and executive director of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, addresses the next speaker during Downtown Fresno Partnership’s first quarter 2016 State of Downtown event held in the Warnors Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday evening, March 30, 2016 in downtown Fresno, Calif. ezamora@fresnobee.com

From the ongoing development of residential living to the $7 million renovation of a former auto dealership into a locus for technology businesses and to the $20 million project to restore traffic to Fulton Street, downtown Fresno is seeing a surge of activity.

And for denizens of the district, all that activity represents hope for revitalization – and was a reason to celebrate Wednesday evening. The Downtown Fresno Partnership, a coalition of businesses in Fresno’s urban core, held its annual State of Downtown event to issue a report card of sorts on efforts to revitalize the district.

Over the past 24 months, downtown Fresno has attracted about $100 million in private-sector investment, and since 2010 developers have built about 550 residential units – lofts or apartments – in what Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and the opening speaker for the event, described as a “renaissance” for the district.

Aaron Blair, executive director of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, elaborated by offering an advance look at the organization’s first quarterly report that will be officially released Friday. Blair said about $95 million in private-sector investment is under construction in the downtown area, with another $92 million of construction on the drawing board for the coming year. “Private investment is starting to reach three times, almost four times, what government is investing,” he said. “We are on a trajectory to just kill it in downtown.”

Blair pointed to the Bitwise South Stadium project as a particular highlight. Bitwise Industries expanded its operations as a hub for growing technology businesses and entrepreneurs in a newly renovated, 100-year-old former auto dealership on Van Ness Avenue south of Chukchansi Park baseball stadium. Bitwise, which continues to maintain operations in its original space at downtown Fresno’s northern fringe, spent an estimated $7 million on the renovation effort. Blair said that to date, 107 small- and mid-sized creative and technology companies have nested at Bitwise South Stadium. “That’s just insane,” he said.

The new Bitwise building is also home to Fresno State’s new Downtown Center, said Scott Moore, the university’s dean of global and continuing education. Moore said Fresno State will soon cut the ribbons on its classrooms at Bitwise, where it will partner to offer a range of technology and other classes. “Now we have a permanent home, a permanent name and a permanent presence” in downtown, Moore said.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin talked about the progress to revitalize downtown since the first State of Downtown breakfast about six years ago. She touted the promise of one of her signature projects: a $20 million makeover on the six-block Fulton Mall to tear out the pedestrian lane and restore traffic between Tuolumne and Inyo streets for the first time since the 1960s – an era when the mall was thriving and predating a northward exodus of major department stores and other retailers to shopping centers. “After 40 years of debate, we’re finally opening the Fulton Mall” to traffic, she said. And, she added, “we’re filling vacant buildings at an impressive rate” with new restaurants and other businesses in the downtown district.

In her last appearance as mayor at a State of Downtown event, she also had a bit of fun, hoisting a plastic cup of Swearengin Strawberry Blonde Ale, created by Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co. in her honor for last weekend’s FresYes Fest. “After seven-plus years in office, I need a drink,” she said as she took a healthy swig of the brew.

The downtown partnership organization also recognized Jim Haron, owner of Haron Jaguar & Land Rover, as this year’s recipient of its Al Allen Downtown Leadership Award. Haron’s dealership at Van Ness and M streets is the only new-car dealership remaining in Fresno’s downtown, defying an exodus of other luxury makes to the city’s northern reaches.

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