Grand vision for technology in Fresno, and jobs for those living beyond

Bitwise Industries grows in Fresno

Bitwise Industries in Fresno is wrapping up renovations to a 100-year-old building to enlarge its capacity to house tech companies and increase its training offerings. CEO Jake Soberal discusses what the expansion means for Fresno's technology ind
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Bitwise Industries in Fresno is wrapping up renovations to a 100-year-old building to enlarge its capacity to house tech companies and increase its training offerings. CEO Jake Soberal discusses what the expansion means for Fresno's technology ind

In two years, Bitwise Industries has grown from a fledgling tech startup stuffed into a “crappy building” at the northern fringe of downtown Fresno to a renovated, 50,000-square-foot technology hub in a century-old building south of Chukchansi Park.

Bitwise CEO Jake Soberal is eager to keep that momentum going. In an annual open letter to the community, the irrepressible Soberal is pitching a grand and audacious vision for downtown Fresno over the next decade:

▪ Developing a master-planned, 2.5 million-square-foot campus for technology and innovation education in the South Stadium area that eventually would host a couple of hundred thousand new jobs in downtown.

▪ Building a light-rail system spanning Fresno County to ease the inevitable traffic and parking issues that accompany the creation of those new jobs in downtown.

We’re finally at a point in Fresno where people are allowing themselves to dream again.

Jake Soberal, Bitwise Industries CEO

“I hope we’re giving voice to the folks who want something different” for Fresno, Soberal said. “We’re finally at a point in Fresno where people are allowing themselves to dream again.”

Technology campus

The cornerstone of Soberal’s vision is expanding the footprint of Fresno’s burgeoning technology industry in downtown.

He hopes to create 250,000 jobs in the next five to eight years in an area roughly bounded by L, Inyo, Santa Clara and H streets, in the area south of Chukchansi Park and the old Fulton Mall and east of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. For context, the county currently has 372,000 jobs, according to state figures.

The need for such expansion, Soberal said, is fueled by would-be tenant companies on the Bitwise waiting list. “We need to break ground on six new projects by January,” Soberal said.

The technology campus would include a comprehensive charter high school focused full time on technology and innovation, opening with about 450 students by 2018 across Van Ness Avenue from the current Bitwise South Stadium building.

Bitwise already is busy securing land for the campus. Soberal said he has lined up about 75 percent of the needed property. The plans would bring significant changes to the neighborhood, preserving historic buildings and getting rid of those that aren’t. “We need to go up,” he said. “The majority of what we need to build is five stories or higher.”

The vision includes other businesses that would emerge to serve the workers – restaurants and the like, as well as green space and recreation. Soberal thinks that downtown housing, already thriving at the north end of the area, would begin springing up in nearby blocks, including Chinatown on the west side of the Union Pacific tracks.

It’s all with an eye toward keeping 20-somethings here where they can enjoy an urban-living scene rather than losing them to places such as San Francisco, Silicon Valley or Los Angeles.

Light rail

While the technology/education campus is Soberal’s immediate focus, he said the light-rail system – with 284 miles of rail serving as spokes connecting rural areas of Fresno, Madera, Kings and northern Tulare counties to a downtown Fresno hub – is just as important to the vision. Ideally, he said, it would be developed simultaneously with the tech campus.

Soberal said he visited with representatives of Austin, Texas, at the recent South By Southwest music festival, where a technology boom has fueled the city’s growth over the past few decades. He asked if there was anything they would do differently in their tech boom. Their answer was building a train from the suburbs to the city because of the congestion that resulted from the surge in business.

“Now is the moment for Fresno to build out this system,” he said, before potential routes are clogged by entrenched development. “We need to invest in the infrastructure for what we know is our future need.” That investment could amount to $1 billion or more over the next 10 years, Soberal estimated.

He hopes to see ground broken on the project in five years and be operational 10 years from now – a schedule that he acknowledged is ambitious. “But if you say you’re going to build a train, the schedule is not something to back off on,” he said.

In addition to the potential to bring technology workers and others into downtown Fresno, the trains also could ease transportation for farmworkers to live in the city and need to reach their jobs in the rural areas, such as proposed rail lines to Coalinga, Sanger, Biola, Kingsburg, Madera and other outlying places. “This is not a suit-and-tie train exclusively,” Soberal said.

Soberal pointed to historic streetcar routes operated in Fresno’s past by Albert Wishon and Henry Huntington as likely routes for light rail within the city. Outside Fresno, new lines would be developed in stages in the areas of least resistance.

It’s an audacious plan, Soberal acknowledged. “But it was no less audacious in its time for Huntington to build a rail line to Huntington Lake,” he added. “Unless we think big, we’re not going to get anything that moves us out of our current reality.”

Reaction and challenges

Fresno developer Tom Richards of the Penstar Group and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin both applauded the Bitwise vision for downtown, even as they expressed some uncertainty over the light-rail side of the plan.

“The concept is terrific, and the opportunities there are tremendous,” said Richards, who is not involved in the project. But the concept is not without practical challenges:

▪ The ability of the city’s aging infrastructure in the South Stadium district to handle the demands of such an intensive development – including the expansion of fiber-optic lines to meet the expanded demand for bandwidth by more technology businesses.

▪ The ability of Bitwise to line up the necessary capital to pull off the project.

Swearengin said the city is excited by Soberal’s vision, “and we want to run alongside them as fast as they can go.”

How fast is that? “This is all going to be driven by the pace with which the private sector is able to move,” Swearengin said.

Richards, a member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, said Bitwise might be better served by focusing on its expansion first and letting future demand demonstrate a need for light rail. In areas where light rail is successful, he added, it serves urban and suburban areas rather than far-flung rural communities. “It responds to the intensity of development and concentrations of people in confined areas,” Richards said.

Swearengin said it is “difficult to see a path today” for light rail. Ridership hurdles would have to be overcome to eventually warrant light-rail investments. In the meantime, Fresno’s efforts to develop a bus rapid transit, or BRT, program represents “light rail on wheels” within the city, she said.

Mike Dozier, executive director of Fresno State’s Office of Community and Economic Development, said he was excited by the symbolism of Soberal’s light-rail plan as a means of reaching out to the Valley’s rural communities.

“The first thing I thought when I read the letter was, ‘I’m all in,’ ” Dozier said. “His vision is spot on. He wants to include these rural communities in the process.  Not everyone is going to be in a tech business, but there are people in the weeds in these rural towns who are tech-oriented and who need an opportunity to be introduced to this stuff.”

Swearengin said that it won’t take 250,000 jobs for the Bitwise efforts to be considered a success. The city has in recent years celebrated projects that brought 50 tech jobs downtown. If the number in five years is only 200 or 500, or 2,500 or 5,000, she added, it still “will be phenomenal,” she said.