Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin delivered her eighth and final State of the City address Wednesday, a 54-minute summation of her time in office, with a focus on the previous year’s flurry of activity and a peek at what might be cooking in her final six-plus months on the job.
For anyone who has watched the workings of Fresno’s government since 2008, it all would sound very familiar. There was surviving the Great Recession. Remaking Fulton Mall back into its Fulton Street incarnation, Bus Rapid Transit, growing the Police Department from its Great Recession low of 700 staffers to a proposed 801 in the coming budget, reopening the central policing district office, remaking the city’s development code, improving Fire Department response times, remaking water infrastructure, increasing park space, addressing substandard housing and battling homelessness.
For instance, Swearengin said, between 2009 and this year, the total number of homeless decreased by more than 48 percent, and the number of chronic homeless dropped 51 percent.
Swearengin spent a good portion of the start of her speech thanking the cast of players who helped implement her vision during her time in office. But make no mistake, Swearengin patted herself on the back for a job well done on one key point: She was the shepherd. She was the one, she said, who cut through “a very large, steaming portion of cynicism” that had stymied her predecessors who made similar grand promises of remaking Fresno, only to fail in the effort.
I stand here before you today to declare one last time as mayor that the state of the city of Fresno is strong and growing stronger every day.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
“I stand here before you today to declare one last time as mayor that the state of the city of Fresno is strong and growing stronger every day,” she said.
Swearengin even allowed herself to dream a bit, as she spun the scenario of Fresno City College students living in a mixed-use housing development at the southwest corner of Blackstone and McKinley avenues – students who don’t stress out about finding campus parking because they walk or bike to school, and who take Bus Rapid Transit to job opportunities up and down Blackstone from downtown to River Park. The kicker?
“That project isn’t a figment of my mixed-use, (Transit Oriented Development)-loving mind,” she said. “That project is being proposed today.”
And, Swearengin said, it is from a private developer and wouldn’t have happened without Bus Rapid Transit.
But what about next year?
In her past two State of the City addresses, Swearengin has paid considerable attention to her legacy.
It is unclear what direction her successor will take the city. Swearengin leaves office with some of her projects unfinished or unrealized, among them not only bus rapid transit, but also increased resources for battling inner-city blight and a new general plan that focuses on infill development and holds the line on sprawl.
Either Fresno City Councilman Lee Brand or Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea will be the next mayor. Will they share Swearengin’s vision? Perea, in particular, has expressed skepticism on more than one Swearengin project, and both he and Brand don’t appear to be huge Bus Rapid Transit fans. The next State of the City could set a very different tone than Swearengin’s on Wednesday.
Swearengin in her speech focused on the changes Fresno has seen during her time in office.
In short, she said Fresno is a different city than the one she inherited from then-Mayor Alan Autry in January 2009. Swearengin said crowds at the monthly ArtHop are growing, Fulton Street is being reborn, the Fresno Grizzlies’ Taco Truck Throwdown is immensely popular. It’s a quality-of-life issue, and the quality of life is better now than it was eight years ago.
Swearengin said she inherited a city that had unstable finances, an 18 percent unemployment rate and a homeless population that was growing annually by double digits. She said there was “no willpower” to address the city’s long-term water needs, and growth was on an unsustainable trajectory.
Looking to the near future, Swearengin said her administration will propose a program requiring interior inspections of all rental units in the city. This is something that has been pushed by social justice advocates, especially since last November, when hundreds of residents went without heat, gas and hot water at the Summerset Village Apartments.
Tying everything together from visionary projects like bus rapid transit to quality-of-life issues like substandard housing, Swearengin said her administration has never simply done what is expedient.
“Every big decision we’ve faced in the last eight years had two very clear choices: what’s comfortable and what we’ve always done vs. charting a new course for Fresno,” Swearengin said.