Highway 99 is the vertebrae of California’s San Joaquin Valley. It cuts through miles and miles of agricultural land. It can also take travelers from the Bay Area, known to be a hub for social entrepreneurs and innovators, to Fresno, which is, to put it bluntly, not.
Located in the center of California’s vast Central Valley, Fresno is larger than Miami, New Orleans and Kansas City. Starting in the 1970’s, Fresno suffered from urban sprawl. A changing economy caused an exodus of businesses and residents out of the once thriving downtown and converted the once prosperous pedestrian Fulton Mall into a ghost town.
But that was Fresno then, not Fresno now.
So say Gretchen Moore, Executive Director and Rocio Andrade, Business and Community Services Manager at the Downtown Fresno Partnership, who are leading the effort to revitalize the downtown area. Andrade, an immigrant from Jalisco and daughter of migrant farm laborers, may seem to some an unlikely champion for Fresno. But the enthusiasm for her city, which she said “is turning challenges into opportunities,” is unbridled.
The past few decades have been rough on Fresno. Tell me, is it coming back?
It’s definitely making a comeback. People are excited about the changes going on, especially downtown. New coffee shops, breweries and tech incubators are popping up, we’re reconstructing the historic Fulton Mall, young people are moving in and families coming back to the downtown area.
In addition to its economic problems, Fresno seems to have a reputational problem. Poor, dangerous, lacking opportunities?
The reputation is unfair. People make assumptions without giving themselves the opportunity to see what the city has to offer. We have our problems like anywhere else, but things are really improving. There’s an unfair comparison to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fresno just needs to be Fresno. That’s who we are.
What types of opportunities are there in Fresno specifically?
An important competitive advantage is the cost of living. People can still afford to rent or buy a house here, unlike most parts of the state. Also, there’s a lot to be done here and opportunities to create. Bitwise is downtown, and is helping to create an entrepreneurial culture based on technology, I think that’s where the future of our economic development is. Our location is our greatest asset. We are close to Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. You can take day trips to go skiing or to the beach. We are located in the most productive agricultural valley in the world. I think the restaurant industry and foodie culture could really take off here given our local food production.
How did this resurgence happen? Why now?
Some really exciting things are coming to downtown Fresno—most importantly, the country’s first high-speed rail station. The AAA Fresno Grizzlies play downtown and they have done a great job of helping build a sense of community pride. Fresno State has also started to offer classes downtown in an attempt to integrate further with the city. This has brought in more young people.
The country’s first high-speed rail station? What effect will that have on Fresno?
I think it's going to be huge. Construction on the high-speed rail project is underway in Downtown Fresno and we’re going to benefit greatly from our central location. It will take less than three hours to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and Fresno will be right at the halfway point. A lot more people are going to be passing through here and that's going to be very important to create a vibrant city.
What would a job well done look like in 5 years?
When I close my eyes I see Downtown Fresno full of people, with activities for everyone. I dream of having so many art galleries, shops and restaurants that visitors don’t even know where to start. At this rate, it’s going to happen.