Whenever people write about the history of the Fulton Mall, they head to the archives for pictures from the groundbreaking on March 31, 1964.
It was a day to remember and not just because Fresno was shouting to the world that it was on the cutting edge of downtown revitalization. Unlike today’s largely ceremonial affairs – cutting ribbons and turning dirt with gold shovels – they actually jack-hammered a large portion of Fulton near Tuolumne Street.
One of the best-known photos shows then-Mayor Wallace D. Henderson (remember when politicians had mustaches?) and other leaders clapping while Larry Willoughby, executive directory of the Downtown Association of Fresno, speaks from the back of a flatbed truck.
Today such a groundbreaking would cause a heart attack in City Hall’s risk-assessment wing. A large crowd, well-dressed and primarily men, stood on large asphalt chunks strewn on the street. That’s how things rolled back then.
If you look at the bottom of this picture, you’ll see two balding men: Ronald Weiner and his father, Irwin J. Weiner. They were the heart and soul of Procter’s Jewelers, which opened in 1945 when Fulton was a street.
The Weiner family has pretty much seen it all on Fulton. The post World-War II boom, the slow decay of downtown as people moved north, the city’s investment in the Fulton Mall, the attention that followed, a few years of increased business, and then the exodus of fellow merchants – big and small – as Fresno’s unchecked northern growth accelerated and City Hall ignored the mall’s needs.
Now it’s back to the future for Fulton and the Weiners as the city embarks on its $20 million effort to return traffic to Fulton. At 4 p.m. Thursday, there will be a ceremonial groundbreaking at Fulton and Merced Street. Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who has led this cause throughout her two terms, and other city leaders will be there.
And so will Ronald Weiner, now 82, and his son Brent, 47. After all the ups and downs, they still believe in Fulton. And they believe that bringing back traffic is the right decision.
Brent has served as president of the Downtown Association and board chairman of its successor, the Downtown Fresno Partnership. He can cite statistics about the fate of the pedestrian mall boom. The key one is that 89 percent of nearly 200 built in the United States have been removed.
Brent, in fact, started advocating for making Fulton a street again in 2002. At that time, a study by a Berkeley design firm – one of many commissioned by the city under the heading of “what in the world do we do with this mall?” – recommended bringing back traffic.
The idea then was same as now. Allow motorists to drive by to see the storefronts. Among the suggested features: wide sidewalks for pedestrians and outdoor dining. At a Fresno City Council meeting, mall lovers said that such a change would kill the many festivals held on the mall. Brent answered their protests by saying on festival days, the street can be closed.
Today’s critics describe the mall as an urban park. They point to Van Ness and other downtown streets and say that business isn’t exactly booming. Fulton, they predict, will be just another street – one built at the expense of losing a Fresno landmark.
Father and son have answers for them.
“This street will be special,” Brent says. “People can still walk. The art and some of the fountains are being preserved. It will become a district with its own distinct vibe. With all of the building by the Assemis and other developers, there are many more people living downtown now. They want somewhere to go.”
One more thing. A really big thing: “Because of this project, there’s a big demand for downtown buildings. Prices are soaring.”
That’s good for Fresno. One reason that City Hall has to pinch pennies on everything from public safety to parks is that downtown real estate has long been depressed. Those classic 1920s high-rises don’t generate anything close to their potential in property taxes, a portion of which goes to Fresno’s general fund. Tall buildings brimming with people and businesses are cash cows for cities.
Ronald Weiner says that millennials will flock to the new Fulton and downtown Fresno in general.
“The biggest difference is the attitude of the generations. We did what we always did. Today young people are more aggressive. They are not afraid to live life and do things differently.”
Ronald recalls that Procter’s saw a rise in sales the first few years of the mall and then a drop-off. Big names such as J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and Gottschalks exited – and a downtown Macy’s promised by a developer upon getting City Council approval to build Fashion Fair in the late 1960s never materialized.
But the dearth of customers pushing out other merchants didn’t force Procter’s to close its doors at 1201 Fulton Mall. Even as the mall got tired and dingy. Even as City Hall put gross, smelly portable toilets on the mall. Even as City Hall endlessly chased its tail without giving the mall the resources it needed to succeed.
Procter’s is a family business that specializes in the personal touch. Customers from all over the Valley seek the store out. The Weiners knew their jewels and their watches and, says Ronald, followed the No. 1 rule established by his father: “The customer is always right. Even when he is wrong.”
Irwin broke into the jewelry business with Gensler-Lee Diamonds in 1933. Twelve years later, he opened Procter’s. Over time, they would have five other stores in San Jose and other Bay Area cities. When Fashion Fair opened, Ronald says, he was offered space there. But he didn’t want to change his approach to selling jewelry or be open for as many days and hours as the mall required.
Proctor’s did go north. To Mission Village on Shaw Avenue for 15 years. Twice they were robbed by armed men – something that has never happened on Fulton.
“Downtown is completely safe,” Ronald says, “but a lot of people have a perception that it’s dangerous. That has to change for downtown to succeed.”
An arsonist finally accomplished in 2014 what City Hall’s neglect of the mall and political gridlock couldn’t. Extensive fire damage forced Procter’s to move. Over to Van Ness, close to Divisadero, in the old Blosser’s Sports building.
Brent attends to longtime customers and the succeeding generations there. But the main focus is another family business, R-G Awards Systems. It sells trophies, law enforcement badges and patches, fraternal organization pins and executive awards to customers all over the country.
But the Weiners have hired an architect and plan to restore to its original glory the Procter’s building at Fulton and Fresno Street. Whether the jewelry business returns to that spot is up in the air, Brent says. With Fulton poised for a comeback, he is confident that other businesses will want to be at that busy corner.
Whatever they decide, I wish them well. When most everyone else fled, three generations of Weiners have believed in – and fought for – Fresno’s most historic street.
Fulton Street groundbreaking
4 p.m. Thursday, Merced Street and Fulton Mall