City Beat

Monty Python or Peach/Butler site: Take your pick for farce

A portion of the former state agriculture center on Peach Avenue near Butler in southeast Fresno. The 49-acre site is at the center of a city parks debate that involves City Hall, community leaders and the federal government.
A portion of the former state agriculture center on Peach Avenue near Butler in southeast Fresno. The 49-acre site is at the center of a city parks debate that involves City Hall, community leaders and the federal government. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Let’s agree on some first principles right up front.

▪ Well-maintained, well-funded parks are a blessing.

▪ Fresno needs more such parks.

▪ Community advocates are sincere in their quest for more parks.

▪ City Hall and all other levels of government truly want the best for the people, and for the most part do an excellent job of delivering on that promise.

That said, wait until you get a load of the latest chapter in what can only be described as The Great Peach/Butler Land Farce.

City Hall promised a decade ago to turn 49 acres near the corner of Peach and Butler avenues in southeast Fresno into a park. The site, once owned by the federal government, still isn’t a park.

The feds have sent a letter to City Hall: Turn that place into a park or we’re going to take the land back.

“Please let us know how you will proceed in addressing this situation,” says Ray Murray, a top official with the National Park Service, at the end of a three-page, single-spaced letter dated Sept. 24 to Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo.

‘Me, too’

On Wednesday, I chatted about this issue with Mark Standriff, the city’s communications director. In essence, Standriff said, “Me, too.”

This is what officials in the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin often say when The People come tearing through City Hall’s front doors demanding a service or a program and an amenity or an entitlement or a free goody – all in the name of Social or Environmental or Racial or Ethnic or Geographic or Economic or Medical Justice.

“Me, too,” officials say. “How do we pay for it?”

On more than one occasion, that second part has really upset The People.

Swearengin doesn’t actually want a regional soccer park (as has been pitched by some community activists) for the 49 acres. She’s part of a powerful alliance (which includes District 5 Council Member Sal Quintero and the State Center Community College District) that wants to turn the Peach/Butler site into a school.

Firm details on the school idea are to come. It’s enough here to say it will have a strong “vocational education” focus.

Hmmm, let’s see. Fresno and this part of the Valley are routinely the butt of national jokes and the target of inch-thick Think Tank studies for our alleged stupidity. We’re poor. We’re uneducated. We can’t find a job. If we do, we can’t keep it because we are uneducated. This state of affairs is causing a social collapse that’s tragic to behold and stunning in its scale. A bachelor of arts degree these days is pretty much worthless. But Fresno and the Valley are chock full of surprisingly good-paying jobs in the vocational arts field that go begging simply because small armies of ambitious and diligent job-seekers can’t get the proper training in a cost-effective and equitable manner.

Oh, and one other thing. President Barack Obama places such a high value on the vast possibilities of so-called “junior college” education that he wants to make that two-year investment in a person’s future 100% free.

I mention this because, near as I can tell, Swearengin when she says “me, too” envisions this vocational school on the 49 acres PLUS plenty of green space (pocket parks, regular-sized parks, linear parks that also are called trails and, here and there in prudent fashion, regional parks) in equitable amounts in every corner of the city – including southeast Fresno.

All of it to be delivered in a wise and steady fashion while City Hall makes sure all of its other services aren’t gutted.

OK, we’ve got that bit of context out of the way as we chew on The Great Peach/Butler Land Farce (hereafter to be TGPBLF).

Those 49 acres

Next, let’s chew on those 49 acres.

The place used to be called the federal Agricultural Research Service Lab. City Hall and the feds knew back in the late 1990s that the site would be a policy headache. That was when the feds started to realize the Lab had to move to more modern quarters.

I first took a tour of the site in late June 2001. By that time, everyone knew the lab was headed to a new home near Parlier.

George Sinopoli, a World War II veteran, joined me on the stroll. Sinopoli, who died in 2006, is one of the heroes in getting a state Veterans Home in Fresno. In mid-2001, he thought the Peach/Butler site would be perfect for aging vets (like me).

“Wow! What a place,” Sinopoli told me. “I love it. This really gets me excited.”

We all know the Veterans Home ended up on California Avenue in West Fresno. But allow me to repeat a paragraph from my June 30, 2001 story. It’s pertinent to TGPBLF.

“Once the research service lab leaves its current home, said Ira Craig, a realty specialist with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., the 50 acres will be made available to other USDA divisions. If there are no takers, then the land is handed to the federal General Services Administration, which can deed it at little or no cost to worthy nonprofit institutions or government agencies, he said.”

Well, there was occasional chatter and even less movement among government types for the next five years. No one in that behemoth called the federal government wanted the site. Maybe the working train line running through the middle of everything dampened Uncle Sam’s enthusiasm.

But don’t forget, this was 2006. Every state, every city, every village, every suburban backyard had its own money tree. Mortgage-backed securities (rated Triple A by federally-certified bond-rating agencies) were the secret to perpetual good times.

Fresno City Hall bought the hype. You see, we were getting hammered at the time in the national and local press about all our failings. Our lack of green space was the No. 1 crisis. Well, actually it tied for the No. 1 spot with our lack of sidewalks, our lack of cultural amenities, our lack of curbs, our lack of facilities able to compete with Fresno State’s Save Mart Center. Reporters like me whipped everyone into a frenzy, most especially Mayor Alan Autry and the City Council.

So, we all went on a borrowing binge. Wall Streeters call it “leverage.” We were going to leverage our way to fame and honor (among the national elites) and to justice and equity (for the many Fresnans who truly needed and deserved an improved quality of life).

Oh, heavens, what did we actually do?

I won’t go into Granite Park and The Met and Pension Obligation Bonds and No Neighborhood Left Behind Bonds and Fresno Falcons bonds and Public Safety Bonds and Developer Impact Fees and “Tale of Two Cities” promises.

Bonds. Park Bonds.

But let’s talk about Parks Bonds.

You see, by the time Autry began his second term in January 2005, much of Fresno, and certainly all of the mainstream media, had become thoroughly drunk on crises. The governing notion of the Swearengin administration (“me, too”; in other words, we all want a just distribution of assets, but we must prudently weigh how to do so in an imperfect world) had no truck with anyone at City Hall.

So, the city in April 2008 decided to borrow up to $40 million to build new parks. As I recall, $30-plus million was actually borrowed. Developer fees from all those houses that would be built annually for the next 50 years would more than cover the yearly bond bill.

The Parks Bond did two things of note.

First, it would come to highlight just how ambitious Parks folks can be when they get a bunch of money, be it from bonds or developer fees on steroids.

One of the parks was going to be a skateboard facility in the middle of the South Van Ness Industrial Area. The thinking was this gritty part of town would become a new hot spot with the younger crowd, and a skatepark would merely accelerate the momentum.

Then there was going to be a pocket park on the southwest corner of Fulton and Mono streets, south of Fulton Mall. This pocket park was needed because the Autry administration, with the help of an Ohio-based development company, was going to turn the entire area in a half-billion-dollar bonanza of housing, retail and entertainment. The city ended up paying Octavia Diener and partners $650,000 for six-tenths of an acre. The site remains what it has long been – a boarded-up building.

Second, the Parks Bond meant City Hall had to have a game plan for spending the dough. Long story short, the city built some parks in north Fresno, the housing bubble exploded into the Great Recession and a lot of the planned parks for south Fresno were left on the drawing boards.

That’s because City Hall, its finances cratering in unprecedented fashion, was desperate to avoid bankruptcy. Attrition decimated the ranks of sworn police officers and firefighters. Nearly a thousand positions in the citywide workforce were cut or left unfilled. Swearengin pretty much went door-to-door among nonprofits begging them to voluntarily take over the maintenance of community centers.

You know those credit-rating agencies that said securities backed by the mortgages of drunk rugby players were of solid-gold investment grade? They made up for that disaster by downgrading Fresno’s bonds to junk status.

City officials didn’t build the promised parks in south Fresno because they didn’t have the money to maintain them. But no one forgot that south Fresno had been left out in the cold.

It was during the mania (however well-intentioned) of Autry’s second term that City Hall said to the feds: “Sure, we’ll take the deed (free of charge) for the 49 acres on Peach. Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll have it turned into a beautiful park in no time flat. Uncle Sam, you can cut the grand-opening ribbon.”

Then Autry flew the coop in January 2009. He might as well have said: “Good luck, suckers!”

New deals

Now, to the next bit of context.

Swearengin made two mistakes.

First, she ran for re-election in June 2012 and won easily. The city’s finances, still in bad shape, would be her legacy.

Second, the city pulled through during her watch. That brought out the long knives among her various rivals. They were content to stay in the background when the hard decisions were made about cuts. When there’s some extra money, they wanted a Mayor’s authority to decide how to spend it.

Of course, that’s the way of American politics. Always has been. Always will be. Swearengin didn’t get drafted. She fought for the job.

The maddening thing for Swearengin’s opponents is that she’s just as tough in relatively good times as she is in the lonely bad times. She told her opponents: “Give me your spending ideas. I’ll decide. Good day.”

Here’s the odd thing. The voter-approved City Charter says pretty much the same thing.

Anyone who followed the spring budget hearings knows what happened next. Swearengin said she’d spend slightly less than $6 million on various restoration projects in parks. The road to parks recovery had begun. All of the projects were located south of Shaw Avenue, Autry’s famous dividing line in his “Tale of Two Cities.”

Before you knew it, the council chamber and Mariposa Mall were full of demonstrators demanding more money for parks in general and, specifically, for southeast Fresno.

“Where do we get the money?” Swearengin in essence said.

“The general fund reserve,” the opponents said.

“No. Take that up with the new mayor in January 2017,” Swearengin in essence said.

“Then go tap a bunch of well-heeled corporations,” the opponents said.

“Like Gottschalks?” Swearengin in essence said.

It’s all good, fun, hit-below-the-belt politics. But people complaining because they’re not in power isn’t news. That’s why Facebook was invented.

About the letter …

We now come to our final piece of context – the Sept. 24 letter from the National Park Service’s Ray Murray to Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo.

First thing to keep in mind: Murray needs 18 paragraphs to say what needed only a few sentences.

Murray begins by reminding City Hall that the 49 acres were deeded to the city in 2006 “for public park and recreation purposes.”

Murray adds in reference to a recent report sent to the feds: “This is the first report received of the ten biennial reports required under the terms of the conveyance.”

It took the feds nearly a decade to figure out that they weren’t getting reports as promised from Fresno City Hall? If I’m not mistaken, this is the same federal government that simply prints all the money it needs.

Then Murray says Fresno “is in substantial non-compliance with the terms of the deed.” Murray says he knows this because of the city’s “lack of communication since the time of the property transfer.”

I thought Al Gore invented two-way Internet service. I know Benjamin Franklin invented two-way snail mail.

From my viewpoint, a great deal of Murray’s letter is posturing by a government agency that knows how to boom out a “Wizard-of-Oz-behind-the-curtain” voice.

But here are three interesting sentences, all relating to what the feds will do if Fresno doesn’t get moving fast on building a park on those 49 acres:

“The ultimate remedy for non-compliance is the reversion of the property to federal ownership, at which time it would return to the General Services Administration for re-disposal. Such an action would likely foreclose the possibility of the land serving a public park purpose, unless another eligible recipient capable of establishing, maintaining, and operating a park came forward with an acceptable application for such a use. Before such a reversion action is taken, we would like to explore the possibility that the City could achieve compliance within a reasonable time.”

If I understand Ray Murray correctly, he’s saying:

▪ Our General Services Administration 15 years ago couldn’t give that land away to anyone, anywhere in the entire $3 trillion federal government.

▪ Our General Services Administration 15 years ago was on its knees, begging Fresno City Hall to take this land off our hands.

▪ If you don’t kick that proposed vocational school into the gutter and begin immediate work on building a regional park you can’t afford, then we’re going to show you who’s boss by taking back that 49 acres and, yes! giving it to our General Services Administration.

▪ Then, for all you City Hall folks know, our General Services Administration might sell that 49 acres to a power company that will burn low-grade coal 24/7.

▪ Or our General Services Administration might sell that 49 acres to Intel, which will build a non-polluting plant that generates hundreds of good-paying jobs for Fresno and the Valley.

▪ Or our General Services Administration might give that 49 acres to the National Park Service, which, because it’s so dead-set on City Hall fulfilling a promise made by a money-burning former mayor, will gift to Fresno $100 million to build that regional park plus send $25 million a year for the next 100 years to staff, operate and maintain the place.

We all know the score. No coal-burning power plant (bad) is going on that land. Intel (good) isn’t coming to town. The National Park Service won’t send a dime our way. And the feds aren’t about to reclaim a piece of land they couldn’t even maintain when they skipped town in 2001.

The last words

My advice: Amend the contract and deed (easily done in the world of Big Government, as anyone on Social Security or Medicare knows), build the vocational school and find other sites for parks in southeast Fresno (don’t tell me you can’t find ’em).

If there’s no money to build or maintain more parks, then wait until there is.

Finally, is this the way Obama’s “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” initiative works? I remember joining a conference call in 2011 when Fresno was named one of the pilot initiative’s original cities. Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told everyone that the federal government would “imbed” experts in Fresno and the other cities to help city officials negotiate the maze of federal bureaucracies. The whole idea was to get everyone to wisely use all government resources to improve the lives of The People.

If Murray’s letter is any indication, Strong Cities, Strong Communities is simply more big-footing from a federal government way too big (and indifferent) to know what’s actually happening in the Outback.

I was in the Army. The Great Peach/Butler Land Farce doesn’t surprise me.

George Hostetter: 559-441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter

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