EDITORIAL: Fresno's historic main street must reflect well on our city

Even though the Fresno City Council has approved preliminary steps to revitalize the Fulton Mall, comments from some of the council members suggest that they don't realize how vital a healthy downtown is to our economy and quality of life.

We suggest that instead of taking counsel from Fresno developers (and campaign contributors) whose business models are blueprints for never-ending sprawl and replication of cookie-cutter strip malls, the council members check out two cities south of us, Visalia and Bakersfield.

It's not by accident that the April unemployment rates for Bakersfield and Visalia, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, were 8.4% and 8.5% respectively compared to Fresno's 12.6%.

Yes, Bakersfield and Visalia have gone out of their way to become business friendly by speeding up permitting for industrial development and office space. But Visalia and Bakersfield share something else: vibrant downtowns.

The reality is, our city will never realize its economic potential until downtown thrives. As things stand now, downtown -- despite many improvements -- is a drag on our economy and our psyche. With more than $1 billion invested downtown in the stadium, courthouses, loft apartments and office buildings, it behooves us to capitalize on these assets.

We understand that council members represent districts and must be responsive to the needs of their constituents. But downtown belongs to everybody, and each council member has an important role to play in building a downtown that speaks well of our city.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin hopes to make Fulton more appealing by returning traffic to Fresno's historic main street while retaining the mall's walkways, public art and benches. The hope is that increased traffic will boost business, as has happened in other cities that have replaced pedestrian malls.

The project is estimated to cost $20 million, and the mayor is seeking to foot the bill with federal and state grants and Measure C sales tax monies.

We have no quarrel with council members debating the merits of restoring the pedestrian mall vs. opening it up to traffic. But council members who say that renovating Fulton shouldn't be a City Hall priority are flat-out wrong.