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Elvin C. Bell: Once upon a time, Fulton Mall represented bold, young city

At a Fulton Mall ceremony, then-Mayor Wallace D. Henderson points out pipes of adobe clay fashioned by artist Stan Bitters to members of the California Arts Commission at the Fulton Mall. Looking on are Martin Dibner, left, former director of the commission, Mrs. Prentis Cobb Hale and Dr. Abbott Kaplan, former commission chairman.
At a Fulton Mall ceremony, then-Mayor Wallace D. Henderson points out pipes of adobe clay fashioned by artist Stan Bitters to members of the California Arts Commission at the Fulton Mall. Looking on are Martin Dibner, left, former director of the commission, Mrs. Prentis Cobb Hale and Dr. Abbott Kaplan, former commission chairman. HANDOUT

After nearly five years of discussions and planning, Fresno civic and business leaders in late 1963 decided in a split decision to duplicate our nation’s original downtown mall in Kalamazoo, Mich., and build a pedestrian mall in downtown Fresno.

Except the Fulton Mall, unlike the one in the Midwest, would not have vehicular traffic at each intersection. And that’s where the whole concept almost fell apart for the $1.6 million project.

No traffic at each intersection? That was the hot topic among the storefront merchants and high-rise tenants who made their living in the central business district. They were also the ones who would be paying quarterly fees to the city for the next 40 years or more. But, the merchants reasoned, it costs money to make money.

Besides, businesses downtown were successful and many expanded when they could find the space. The only downtown vacancy at that time was the north end Fulton site that Sears had occupied prior to moving nearly 5 miles north to a location that abutted Manchester Center.

During that era, downtown was everyone’s oyster. Times were robust, merchants were busy, Fresno City Council meetings were boring, office buildings were fully occupied and folks turned out by the thousands to witness the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Del Webb TowneHouse, a dual-purpose hotel and office complex built by the Webb brothers, who were born and reared a block west of Roeding Park.

The Del Webb TowneHouse opening ceremony heralded the last downtown parade of high school marching bands and drum majors on Fulton Street. Only a short time later in 1963, somber events suddenly jolted Fresnans back to reality.

Following the death of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, the city sponsored a memorial march. Two weeks later, another memorial service was held for Fresno Mayor Arthur L. Selland, who was killed in a car-truck accident at Jenson and Clovis avenues that also took the life of Herbert N. Ferguson, president of the Fresno City and County Chamber of Commerce.

Richard Worrel, president-elect of the chamber, and Lloyd “Sandy” Weber, the chamber’s executive director, were seriously injured but recovered from the accident.

As 1964 arrived, downtown merchants argued over which end of Fulton Street should suffer the initial start of mall construction and the resultant loss of business, council meetings became newsworthy, and Fresno had a dark horse for mayor who arbitrarily set the start date for mall construction that had to be changed almost at the last second.

During this period, I had left the staff of state Sen. Hugh M. Burns and was appointed assistant manager and a department head at the Chamber of Commerce. However, chamber work was not my primary job. At that time, city tax funds supported about a quarter of the chamber’s annual budget.

In one of his last acts before his death, Mayor Selland, the president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, had appointed me to serve as his adviser, speech writer and confidant. I had finished the first draft of Selland’s acceptance speech when he was killed.

Wallace Henderson, a former Reedley College instructor and state assemblyman, was selected Fresno’s new mayor by a slim council majority that had brushed aside protocol by not selecting the mayor pro tem, Ted C. Wills.

As Mayor Henderson’s new lobbying target, it didn’t take long for me to become tangled into the North Fulton Street vs. South Fulton Street scuffling.

Although the controversy continued over vehicle traffic at the Tulare and Fresno Street intersections only, instead of traffic at all intersections, the maneuvering quieted somewhat when Victor Gruin and Associates in Los Angeles, the mall designers, released graphics that depicted hundreds of happy Fulton Mall shoppers, busy vendors at numerous kiosks, and trams carrying people and their shopping bags from one end of the mall to the other.

With the mayor’s announced mall construction start date rapidly approaching, even new controversy erupted. This time it centered within the walls of City Hall. The city manager, a newcomer to Fresno via San Jose, tried to assume the role of point man for mall project announcements.

The public works director firmly believed he was the voice for the mall project since it was a public works event. Not to be outmaneuvered, the city attorney, who felt his skills were as keen in management and public works as they were in jurisprudence, stepped into the fray. He wanted to be the ringleader. The infighting had to stop and the one who needed to stop it was Henderson.

I remember the conversation as if it occurred yesterday.

“Mayor,” I said, “you need to appoint one person, and one person only, as the mall spokesman. And further, you need to change the start date for mall construction from April 1 to the day before or the day after. And you need to do it now.”

“Why change the date?” he asked.

“Because April 1 is April Fools’ Day,” I said, “and you don’t want to start this very controversial project on April Fools’ Day. How about March 31?” I asked.

“Go ahead and announce the new date.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because as of now, you’re the mall manager.”

I wore that hat until Larry Willoughby became the full-time mall manager a few months later. I was elected to the City Council the following year and re-elected three times. My downtown consulting business was in the T.W. Patterson Building for 21 years.

Yes, I’ll miss the mall. I was there at the beginning.

Elvin C. Bell resides in Fresno. He served as a Fresno City Council member for 14 years during the 1960s and ’70s. He is a retired Air Force colonel and the author of 10 books.

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