Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Building a stronger Fresno together by crossing party lines

The crowd erupts into smiles and laughter during groundbreaking for reopening the Fulton Mall to vehicle traffic Thursday, March 3, 2016, in downtown Fresno. The Department of Transportation has provided about $20 million to the project.
The crowd erupts into smiles and laughter during groundbreaking for reopening the Fulton Mall to vehicle traffic Thursday, March 3, 2016, in downtown Fresno. The Department of Transportation has provided about $20 million to the project. Fresno Bee file

Seven years ago, our nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Families in communities across the country, including here in Fresno, felt the pain of layoffs, foreclosures and the struggle to make ends meet. In Fresno, unemployment jumped to 17 percent. Homelessness was growing rapidly. And one in four people was living in poverty.

But today, the city’s future is bright. Hard work, smart investments in recovery, growth and opportunity, and an innovative federal-local partnership have boosted Fresno’s economic recovery. We still have work to do, but by almost every economic measure, Fresno – like the nation as a whole – is better off than it was seven years ago.

The unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half. Fresno has become one of the fastest tech job-creating cities in California. Chronic homelessness has dropped by over 50 percent. And in 2015 alone, real median household incomes grew by over $3,000 while the poverty rate fell by more than 2 percentage points.

This sense of turnaround in Fresno is palpable. The city’s transformation can be felt in nearly every corner. So how did a city in economic distress fight its way back to a place of resilience and opportunity?

It was a team effort – with local leaders, the federal government, and the people of Fresno working hand-in-hand to help each other back up. Residents and city leaders developed an ambitious strategy to change the face of Fresno’s downtown. Federal staff were brought in as teammates at City Hall, partnered with local community leaders, and worked across agencies to unlock federal funding, attract new resources to support downtown revitalization, and incorporate best-in-class city planning practices for Fresno.

For example, the General Services Administration negotiated new leases for federal agencies to locate downtown, bringing workers into the neighborhood so that small businesses would follow. The Department of Transportation invested nearly $20 million to reopen the Fulton Mall to vehicle traffic and improve transit connections, which has spurred $100 million in private investment downtown.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration invested over $3 million in critical road and storm drain infrastructure, providing access to an industrial area serving major businesses in Fresno County. The Mariposa Plaza will connect the high-speed rail station with downtown and beyond thanks to the new Bus Rapid Transit system that also received significant federal transportation funding.

And, the Mariposa Plaza will welcome visitors with new art and landscape design improvements thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Fresno’s recovery demonstrates the power of a new style of federal-local collaboration, one that we call community solutions and involves taking a fresh look at how the federal government and local communities can work together to solve problems. It’s an approach that was born out of President Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer, recognizing that lasting solutions come not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

Community solutions isn’t a Democratic or a Republican approach. It’s a way of cutting through red tape and fixing outdated processes and systems that no longer serve communities in need of help. And it rests on the principle that, whatever our differences, we have a duty to help each other.

This new way of working together has not only been successful in Fresno. It has helped other communities across the country like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Southeast Kentucky make economic strides over the last eight years. This style of working together gives a platform to local leaders who understand what it takes to meet their community’s unique challenges. And it aligns resources at the top and on the ground to meet those challenges as never before.

Fresno serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished by working together, collaborating not only across levels of government, but also across party lines.

Moreover, Fresno’s turnaround reminds us that when we fall on hard times, we come together to solve problems and overcome challenges. This principle has helped sustain our nation through the depths of the Great Recession, and it’s with this principle that we’ll continue to build a stronger economy for Fresno and for the nation as a whole.

Shaun Donovan is director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Ashley Swearengin is mayor of Fresno.