Marek Warszawski

‘If you build it, they will come.’ That didn’t happen in Fresno, but things are changing

“If you build it, they will come” only works in corny baseball-themed movies.

In real life, it’s seldom that simple.

Take the stadium in downtown Fresno that opened its gates May 1, 2002. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Chukchansi Park was touted as the key to revitalizing the city’s urban core that had been long neglected by the leaders of California’s fifth-largest city and ignored by most of its residents.

Except that didn’t happen. For much of its existence, the stadium was the sole draw. Baseball fans seeking fun and enjoyment outside its confines were sorely disappointed. There was no place nearby to grab a beer (until Tioga Sequoia came along), and the restaurants on the Fulton Mall either closed early or weren’t that inviting.

Chukchansi Park might as well have been located along the stretch of Highway 99 between Fresno and Madera.

Fans drove up, parked wherever they could and walked directly to the stadium. After the final out or last fireworks explosion, they went straight to their cars and hit the freeway on-ramps.

And those were the folks resolute enough to venture downtown. Many did not.

It was a stigma Grizzlies president Derek Franks, a team employee since 2004, became accustomed to facing.

“You don’t want to be the only person trying to overcome decades of, ‘We don’t go there,’“ Franks said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to do that alone.”

The Grizzlies, who begin their 22nd season Thursday night with a new MLB affiliate (Washington Nationals) and $3.4 million worth of stadium improvements, are no longer alone.

Downtown Fresno is no longer a geographic pariah. Following the reopening of Fulton Street in October 2017, there are new places to eat, drink and poke around. Festivals and events draw thousands. Above all, there’s a new spirit and energy from people who want to see downtown thrive and share that experience.

Are all the problems fixed? Certainly not. But for the first time that I can recall in my two decades of living here, downtown feels lively. It feels more like the place to be. The sense of positive change is palpable.

Chukchansi Park will host the Pacific Coast League Championship Finals for the second time this week as the Fresno Grizzlies welcome the Memphis Redbirds for Games 1 and 2 on Tuesday and Wednesday night. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

“I still meet people who go, ‘Ehh, downtown,’ but the difference between today and maybe 10 years ago is there’s intrigue and interest,” Franks said.

“They’ve heard of FresYes Fest and they know about the Brewery District and all these other things happening downtown. There’s an intrigue that wasn’t here 10 years ago, which helps us.”

With new restaurants and breweries opening and events like AlleyWave happening in the neighborhood, one might think the Grizzlies are wary of competition for the same food and beverage dollars.

Except Franks doesn’t view it that way. Instead, he sees the new establishments and happenings as a way to raise the tide for every ship.

“Every restaurant, every bar, every place that is around here that has something going on attracts people and tells people downtown has life,” Franks said. “That creates a synergy that we’re enjoying.”

Give people more things to do before and after games, and more people will come downtown to do them. Which, in the end, benefits everyone.

“I talk to Giants fans all the time who go to Oracle Park (formerly AT&T),” Franks said. “What people like about it starts across the street at Pete’s Tavern or MoMo’s. It’s the total experience they enjoy that starts before you get into the stadium.

“People want more to do than just a baseball game. It’s hard to have stand-alone baseball because people want that other stuff and experiences.”

About 1,000 seats were taken out of the left field corner area at Chukchansi Park to make way for Fresno Social, a new walk up bar and lounge area open to any ticket holder. This is part of a $3.4 million capital improvement project by the Fresno Sports & Events LLC ownership group at the park. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Some of that can take place inside the ballpark. The new Fresno Social area down the third-base line, with its flat-screen TVs, covered bar and lounge area looking out toward the field, should become one of the coolest hangouts in town. Same goes for the new 1,500-square-foot water park beyond right field as well as the renovated and upgraded Kodiak Club.

Together, they represent the first multimillion reinvestment in the stadium’s history.

Since the $46 million facility opened 17 years ago, detractors have had a field day.

“What a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“Where’s all the economic growth that was supposed to happen?”

“It should’ve been built north of Herndon.”

Some of these criticisms are fair. Others are a result of decades of disfavor – you could even call it a disdain – for anything having to do with downtown Fresno.

But there are changes taking place that can be denied only by the most stubborn and intractable.

Unlike San Francisco or San Diego, cities that built downtown stadiums and saw instant benefits, the “If you build it, they will come” model struck out here.

Instead it took almost two decades for the city blocks surrounding Chukchansi Park to feel like something other than a dead zone.

Today it’s starting to feel like a real downtown – with a stadium serving as the neighborhood anchor it was intended to be.

“This is a far different time for downtown than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Franks said. “It’s great to see.”

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.