Mayor Swearengin Delivers State of the City Address
Mayor Ashley Swearengin today presented her vision for the City of Fresno in her annual State of the City address. The text of the speech as prepared for delivery follows:
Thank you, Council President Brand, for that introduction. It’s a pleasure to join all of you today as we gather with a thousand of our closest friends to talk about the state of our City. Thank you to the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce, Chair Bruce Batti, CEO Al Smith, and the rest of the board of directors and staff for providing this forum every year.
And, thank you to the event sponsors, especially the Presenting Sponsor Lyons Magnus, for making this event possible.
I have several quick introductions I’d like to begin with this afternoon. First, I’d like to introduce my Community Advisory Panel. Chaired by Kristine Walter, this is a group of about two dozen community leaders who provide regular input to us at City Hall. And, in addition, they also help me with the Fresno Citizens Academy, which is an 8 week, free program that walks you through all the basic functions of city government. We offer it 3 times a year, and we’ve got another Citizens Academy starting this summer. We are taking applications if any of you are interested in participating.
I want to take this opportunity to introduce a new leader in our community. He is Colonel Sami Said, and he is the new commanding officer of the 144th Fighter Wing Air National Guard. He comes to us from the Pentagon where he served as chief of staff and senior military assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense. Colonel Said, we welcome your leadership in our community.
There is another distinguished group of people here today that needs need no introduction, but they do deserve recognition for their service and commitment to our City. They are the members of the Fresno City Council. Councilmembers, please stand and be recognized.
I’m also delighted to introduce for the second year in a row, our City Manager, Mark Scott. Mark just celebrated his one-year anniversary at City Hall and is doing a remarkable job. We are all grateful you returned home.
Finally, it is a pleasure to introduce my family. My parents, Tom and Ruth Ann Newton. My sister and brother-in-law, Andrea and Todd Sobrado. And, of course, my husband, Paul. Paul and I believe in this city together, and I wouldn’t be doing this job without him.
Key to the City
As has become the tradition, I’d like to start this year’s State of the City address with a special presentation – the awarding of a Key to the City of Fresno to a very special and inspirational person in our community.
You will recall two years ago, I began this tradition by recognizing Shirley Bobbitt, a foster parent who has dedicated over 20 years of her life to helping dozens of children in times of crisis.
Last year, the Key to the City went to Dr. Marty and Joanie Martin who have spent the last 20 years in the Lowell neighborhood - raising their family – but also raising up an entire neighborhood by caring for its residents.
In honoring Shirley in 2009 and the Martins in 2010, we recognized people who demonstrate selfless compassion for the people of our City each and every day.
This year’s Key to the City recipient is someone who will inspire you through personal accomplishment and overcoming incredible odds to even be with us here today. Her life experience is proof that anything is possible. That is a message we need to hear in our City right now and for that reason, I’m pleased to announce that the 2011 Key to the City recipient is Janice Scott.
I’m going to tell you about Janice’s story, but first some background. Last year at the State of the City luncheon, we launched Fresno First Steps Home, a non-profit dedicated to raising money and giving it away to help implement the City’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The inspiration for creating Fresno First Steps Home was the successful effort to clean up the H Street encampment, Fresno’s oldest and largest at that time.
Well, that’s how we met Janice Scott. Just two years ago, Janice was homeless and living on H Street.
But, that’s not how her life got started. Janice grew up in what she describes as a “normal childhood.” Her sister and she were being raised in Fresno by their mother, Connie Richmond. As a child, Janice dreamed of becoming a doctor.
But she fell in with the wrong crowd, and the next season of her life turned out to be anything but normal. She left home, then ended up living with her grandparents. When her grandmother moved into a nursing home and her grandfather unexpectedly passed away, Janice had no way to pay rent on their home. She moved in with someone who felt it was ok to hit her and had to get out.
Janice says she didn’t move back in with her mother because she had already put her through so much. That left her with only one option – living on the streets.
For two years, Janice lived on H Street. Her memories of the encampment: Chaos. Hopelessness. Embarrassment, and heartbreak over seeing children who were also living there.
She felt she didn’t belong on the streets and didn’t want anyone to know she was there. She would spend the day at the Poverello House and then sneak back to H Street at night because she was embarrassed. She remembers trying to sleep in a tent in the pouring rain, wondering “Am I going to survive this?”
But even when she was homeless, Janice had a desire to do the right thing. That’s why she took a class in medical terminology at Cesar Chavez Adult School and passed it with a B, even though she couldn’t afford to buy the textbook.
Janice says it’s hard to do something when you don’t have a place to stay. But that all began to change because of Fresno’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program. Janice remembers that one day someone was handing out flyers about a program that was offering help and hope to people in the H Street encampment. At first, she couldn’t believe it, but shortly after, while standing in line to get lunch at the Poverello House, she noticed a note on the bulletin board saying that she should call Latasha with Fresno County EOC. She did, and from there, everything moved quickly. Soon, she was in permanent housing. That gave her enough stability to receive financial aid and concentrate on going to school full time at Heald College, while working nights at the IRS. Janice says she now pays her bills on time and is slowly building her credit back up.
Thanks to Janice’s determination and the Rapid Re-Housing Program, Janice’s mother – Connie Richmond -- was able to visit Janice at her own place for the first time last year. Next month, Janice’s mother will experience another proud moment – watching her daughter walk across the stage at a graduation ceremony for the first time since her eighth-grade graduation.
Janice will graduate with honors from Heald College on July 12 with an Associates of Applied Sciences degree in Medical Office Administration. She received all As and two Bs in the program.
But she’s just getting started with school. She will enter the Associate of Arts degree program at Heald College shortly after graduating in July, and she should have her AA degree by the start of the new year, with the ultimate goal of becoming a registered nurse. Janice says, “I want to keep going to school to help my chances of getting a better job.”
When asked what Janice would want to say to people who are living on the streets right now, she says, “If you truly in your heart want a change, there is hope for you and there is help for you. Somebody actually cares.”
Like many of us here today, Janice Scott learned valuable life lessons from her mother. Her mother taught her: Never give up. Do NOT be a quitter no matter how hard things are. Keep a positive attitude and appreciate what you have, even if you don’t have much.
Janice, thank you for living the life lessons you learned from your mother. You never gave up. You never quit, no matter how hard things were. You are an example of what’s possible. On behalf of an inspired City, Janice Scott, would you please come forward and receive the Key to the City of Fresno?
(Read inscription on the plaque.)
Janice, your mom, Connie, is here. And, your step-father, Robert, is also here. I know they are so proud of you. There is someone else I want to introduce you to. She is Eeva Deshon, CEO of Heald College, and she came all the way down from San Francisco to make a special presentation to you.
(Presentation from Heald College)
Janice’s story is an incredible one. She is a reminder that we can make progress on homelessness in Fresno. We’ve got a plan in place. We’ve got some Federal grant dollars to implement that plan, and so far we’ve been able to help over 1,400 people and 632 households over the last two years, including Janice. But, we know these grant dollars are going to run out, and we don’t want to go backwards when that happens. That’s why we launched Fresno First Steps Home last year with the goal of raising $1 million a year on an ongoing basis. We kicked off the fundraising in July and in the last 11 months we’ve gotten commitments of nearly $500,000 from 1,500 people and businesses. A pretty good start. The money that’s been raised thus far will be used to help the 200 people living in the remaining encampments in Downtown Fresno.
I need your help. If you haven’t yet, please take the Buck a Month pledge and help us raise $1 million. And, we’ve made it especially easy for you to make your donation…right now! Just take out your cell phone, and text the word HOME to 85944 to make a one-time, $10 donation to Fresno First Steps Home. It’s that easy.
I want to say a special thank you to Dan Adams at ABC 30 for donating air time this last year to encourage people to take the Buck a Month pledge. You guys have done an incredible job. Let’s keep at it another year and see our goal of $1 million a year raised to prevent and end homelessness in Fresno.
The State of the City Remains Strong
Now, it is indeed an honor to address you today, Fresno, as your Mayor, and to bring to you the 2011 State of the City address.
As you know, this is my third such address and in both of my previous speeches, I’ve told you that the state of our City is strong - that our strength comes from facing obstacles head on and withstanding one of the most turbulent seasons we’ve seen in modern history.
I’m here today to remind you with confidence that the state of your city remains strong.
I’m here today to remind you of where we’re going, to call out the successes and setbacks along the way, and to re-commit to the advancement of our City in the coming year.
The city charter says that the Mayor is the Chief Executive Officer of the City, which comes with many responsibilities, but for today, I believe my most important responsibility is to be the Chief Encouraging Officer.
You see, we’re engaged in a lengthy and intense, challenging but rewarding battle for our City. I’m not just talking about the short- and medium-term budget battles. I’m talking about the big-picture, long-term struggle to change the course of the direction for an entire city.
I’m talking about moving the needle in the right direction on chronic unemployment, poverty and crime rates; increasing education and income rates, and experiencing a rebirth of the center of our City. I’m talking about Fresno being a Turnaround City. That’s a big vision, and when you’re going after multi-decade, multi-jurisdictional issues, you’ve got to stop every now and then. Remember where you’re going. Recognize successes and setbacks. And, then keep going. So, that’s what I hope to accomplish today.
The Big Rocks
I’m reminded of the story of the college professor who walked into his freshman science class with a big, glass bowl. He set it down on a table in front of the class and put four big rocks into the bowl – pretty much filling the thing up. He asked the class, “How many of you think this bowl is full?” Some hands went up around the room. The professor then took a bunch of pebbles and poured them into the bowl. They all fit. He asked the class, “Now, how many of you think the bowl is full?” This time, about half the class raised its hands. The professor then took out a bag of sand and poured it into the bowl. All the sand fit and took up virtually every remaining space in the bowl. “How many of you think the bowl is full now?” This time, every hand shot up. The professor reached behind his desk and pulled out a pitcher of water and poured the whole thing into the bowl without spilling a drop. He said, “Now, the bowl is full.” He asked the class, “What’s the lesson I’m trying to teach you?” One student raised her hand and sheepishly said, “That there’s always room for more?” The professor said, “That is a good guess but that is NOT the answer. The lesson is ‘always put the big rocks in first.’”
That lesson applies to us as we are engaged in turning around our City. There are a million things that beg for our attention every day, and it’s my responsibility at City Hall to keep us focused on the Big Rocks…4 things: (1) financial health for the City of Fresno, (2) the safety of our residents, (3) economic growth and workforce preparation, and (4) neighborhood and Downtown revitalization.
Let’s talk first about the financial position of the City.
The Financial Health of the City
As you know all too well, the last two and a half years have been marked by the perfect financial storm of plummeting revenues and skyrocketing expenses. The combination of those two factors created a $100 million shortfall in the City’s general fund over three budgets and projections that had us in the hole an additional $90 million over a 5-year period. That’s the bad news. That might qualify as a “setback.”
The good news is that the budget I submitted to the City Council on May 17 addresses the remaining $18.5 million of our overall shortfall. It’s balanced in fiscal year 2012. And, it eliminates the 5-year structural imbalance in our operating funds. That didn’t happen overnight. We have been aggressively cutting and making difficult decisions for the last 2 ½ years, but we are finally seeing the break in the clouds.
Admittedly, our structural balance is fragile, but we have come a long way in addressing our financial situation at City Hall.
I want to acknowledge the City Council for its important role in improving the financial health of the city. I have said on numerous occasions, “I can’t balance the budget by myself.” It is the responsibility of the Administration AND the City Council to work together to balance our budget in a manner which minimizes impacts to public services and is fiscally prudent in the short- and the long-run.
I want to offer a word of encouragement to my City Council colleagues: We’re almost through this. Yes, there are still tough decisions to be made over the next month, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Depending on the decisions you make in June, I may not have to bring forward a mid-year reduction plan…and I may actually be able to present you with a “status quo” budget in FY 2013 with no further cuts to services or employees. That would be the first time in over 3 years! Hang in there. We’re going to make it, and we’ll be a stronger City as a result.
The word “strength” comes from the Latin word, “stringere,” which means “to draw tight.” In other words, our strength as a City comes from drawing together in order to make it through. I can think of no better demonstration of that than the Serve Fresno initiative. Launched a little over a year ago with the goal of logging 1 million volunteer hours in a year, Serve Fresno challenged us all to step up and give some time.
The goal was 1 million hours, and guess what you did, Fresno? You gave almost 1.5 million hours in this last year. You exceeded the goal by 50%. What a bunch of over achievers, you are! You planted trees. You answered phones. You pulled weeds and picked up trash. You worked with children and served the elderly. Fresno, it was perhaps your finest hour, or should I say your finest million and a half hours?
To Hands On Central California – you made Serve Fresno work, and I want to thank your board and staff, as well as Linda Danna of CBS 47 who donated over $120,000 of air time, and Wells Fargo, our corporate sponsor. You “walked the talk” of community service this last year with your support of Serve Fresno.
The City of Fresno has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of volunteerism this year. For example, we were on the verge of closing 10 neighborhood centers last year that serve 1500 children and seniors in our city every day. Thankfully, we were able to find non-profit organizations that volunteered to operate 7 of the neighborhood centers and AT&T provided a grant to keep the remaining ones open. Our non-profit partners are here and deserve special recognition. They are Reading and Beyond, Boys and Girls Club, Boys 2 Men/Girls 2 Women, Fresno Street Saints, United One Productions, Mountain View Community Church, and Plays and Grades. Thank you to each of you and to AT&T. Your efforts have attracted national recognition to our City, but I’m not allowed to talk about that yet. So, stay tuned.
The City’s parks have also benefited from volunteerism. We operate 79 parks and are responsible for maintaining 1,400 acres of green space. We asked Fresnans to help with parks maintenance last summer with our “clean and green” initiative. Then, back in February, we took it to another level with the Adopt-a-Park program sponsored by Comcast. 30 of our parks have since been adopted by boy scout troops, rotary clubs, churches, businesses, and resident groups. Their efforts are filling in a very important gap during this critical time. There are still parks to be adopted. If you’re interested, go to www.fresno.gov/parks for more information.
Thanks to you, our volunteers and community partners, in the middle of the worst of the worst times, every single park, every single neighborhood center, every single rec center has stayed open, maintained, and operational in the City of Fresno.
Returning our City to financial health by reducing our expenses, becoming more efficient, and relying on volunteers and partnerships is the first “big rock” of turning our City around. It provides the foundation for everything else we want to accomplish in our community – like the continuation of high quality police and fire services.
How many of you know that you are served by world class police and fire departments in the City of Fresno? It is true. Our police and fire departments have done an incredible job of delivering essential public safety services this last year in an era of diminished resources.
Let’s talk about how we’re faring as a City with crime prevention and suppression, starting with property crime.
This is an area in our community where we have, unfortunately, suffered setbacks. Our auto theft rates are up 53% thus far in 2011. However, it’s important to consider this information in context. Fresno’s auto theft rates are still drastically lower than they were in 1994 when we were considered the car theft capital of the nation. Over 13,000 cars were stolen in one year. I remember those days. In fact, my sister’s car was one of the 13,000 that were stolen.
By 2009, 15 years later, thanks to the work of our police department, auto theft rates had declined by 75%. But, in 2010, they began to rise in direct correlation with the lack of funding in our criminal justice system. And, while that may be the financial reality in Fresno County for several years longer, we are not willing to just sit back and accept it in the City of Fresno. The Fresno Police Department has been finding ways to impact auto theft while still taking into consideration the overburdened and underfunded criminal justice system.
On March 1, we formed the Career Criminal Auto Theft Team. C-CATT focuses on the top 10% of auto thieves operating in our city - the type of crooks who have individually admitted to stealing hundreds of vehicles in the past year.
In the past three months, C-CATT has made 88 arrests for auto theft, shut down 13 chop shops, recovered 110 stolen vehicles, and taken 9 guns off the streets. Two weeks ago, in just one day, C-CATT operations shut down 2 chop shops and arrested 8 experienced auto thieves, one of whom boasted of stealing 1,000 cars in the past year. For the first four months of this year, on average, 500 cars were stolen each month. In the month of May, that number dropped to 300, a 40% reduction. While there remains a lot of work to be done, we are sending a clear message to auto thieves: your crimes will not go undetected. You will be caught.
Another constant focus for the Fresno Police Department is preventing and suppressing violent crime. And, there’s good news on that front. Since 2001, the City of Fresno has experienced a 26% reduction in violent crime. That’s 1,048 fewer victims. So, we can celebrate today the fact that our City is safer today than it was 10 years ago, but we must remain vigilant. Over the past two years, we’ve seen an uptick in violent crime.
So far this year, violent crime is up 8%. Gang violence is a contributing factor to the increase, which is why the efforts of our Violent Crime Bureau, District Crime Suppression Teams, and “Fresno Cease Fire” are so critically important to the safety of our citizens.
But, unfortunately, domestic violence is contributing most to the increase in the City’s violent crime with an alarming 45% increase. 4 people have lost their lives in the last year from domestic violence.
Two of those people were Gloria Acuna and her son, Steven. On July 13, Robert Acuna told one of his sons that he was going to Gloria’s apartment, his estranged wife, in an attempt to reconcile their relationship. Police reports indicate they got into an argument and that Robert then shot his son, Steven, and his wife, Gloria. Robert turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
The church was packed at Gloria’s and Steven’s funeral some days later. Hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to grieve this tragedy. Two other children were left behind, along with many other family members and friends. The Acuna tragedy has left a wake of grief for hundreds in our community.
I bring up this incident today with permission from one of Gloria’s closest friends, Abby Goldberg. Abby told me she wanted me to talk about it in the instance that it might help someone else and prevent another tragedy from happening. I asked Abby what she wanted to say to all of you. She said, “Do not ignore threats of domestic violence. Take them seriously.”
If you are unsure of what to do, please call the Marjaree Mason Center 24 hour confidential hotline. Their trained staff will guide you through your options. The number is 233-HELP. This is a hotline, not just for victims, but for family members, co-workers, pastors, doctors, and neighbors.
Pam Kallsen, the CEO of the Marjaree Mason Center joins us today. She wants you to know that domestic violence is a community problem and that the community has to stand up against it. If you have questions about domestic violence, or you want to help, talk to Pam after the luncheon or call her over at the Marjaree Mason Center.
Fresno Fire Department
Another critical partner in keeping our community safe is our Fresno Fire Department. You should be extremely proud of the work of your Fresno Fire Department this year. After absorbing budget cuts, emergency response times in 2010 were on par with 2009. When it comes to emergency response to fire calls, our Fresno Fire Department actually saw dramatic improvements in their response times. The first unit was on scene 5 minutes, 19 seconds 90% of the time in 2010, which is 34 seconds faster on average than they were in 2009. And with fewer resources. Overall, our firefighters responded to over 33,000 medical, fire and service calls in 2010, including 794 structure fires. That equates to more than 2 working structure fires daily. I would venture to say there is no other Fire Department in the State of California fighting more fire with the amount of resources we have at hand. This is a testament of the dedication of all members of the six divisions of the Fresno Fire Department.
Economic Growth and Workforce Development
OK, we’re still putting big rocks in the bowl – financial health for the City went in first. Then, safety. Now, let’s put in the “economic growth and workforce preparation” rock. As you know, Fresno’s unemployment rate is at about 17% right now. A portion of that is related to the recession, no doubt. But, let’s not forget that even when construction was booming a few years ago, our unemployment rate was still about twice the state average. And, if you go back and look at unemployment levels every year from now to 1980, the Fresno Area had double-digit unemployment almost every single year. For over 30 years. That’s absolutely unacceptable. We cannot let the chronic, long-term nature of our high unemployment lull us into believing this condition cannot change…because it can but we’ve got to have two things. First, we need businesses that are growing and creating jobs. Second, we need a workforce with the skills needed to fill those jobs. Growing businesses. Qualified workforce. You put the two together and unemployment goes down. Easy, right? Let me take those things one at a time and tell you how we’re doing.
First, what are we doing to help businesses grow in Fresno? #1 - City Hall has to be business friendly and cooperate with employers when they want to expand or locate here. You all have heard the stories and many of you have experienced first-hand the complicated, conflicting, burdensome development processes for which City Hall has become known. We literally have cities surrounding us in the Valley whose economic development slogans are “Come to our community…we’re not Fresno.” Now, instead of getting offended and road tripping down 99 to pick a fight, we ought to just fix City Hall, right? That’s exactly what we’re doing. Two years ago, I launched the Permit Improvement and Process Enhancement Strategy – PIPES for short - to reform business processes at City Hall, and added to that effort this last year with the creation of a Blue Ribbon Task Force made up of industry leaders and representatives from other local agencies key to the permitting process. At the last meeting of the Task Force in November, City Manager Mark Scott and I were shocked…we almost fell out of our chairs…when we heard representatives from industry say that things were actually going along pretty smoothly at City Hall. We were further shocked in April to hear a major commercial property owner comment that it’s easier to do business at City Hall now than in his 30+ years in Fresno.
We still have a long way to go. Neither the City Manager nor I are satisfied with simply hearing anecdotal and periodic, positive feedback. We’ve got to continue on this path month after month, and year after year until we have created a culture of excellence and service that’s embedded deeply so that no matter who is in charge of our organization, business customers are served in a timely, effective and efficient manner.
But, it’s not just processes and management struggles that have created an unfriendly business climate at the City of Fresno – it’s also our policy – our development code. The City’s development code is 55 years old and during its lifetime, it’s never once been streamlined. As a part of the City’s 2035 General Plan update, we have commissioned staff and consultants to re-write the development code. Thanks to incredible work by City staff Keith Bergthold and Katie Stevens in this last year, we have successfully secured the grant funds needed to, not only update our General Plan, but to update the development code along with it.
So, what else did the City do to support business growth and job creation this last year? Our Local Business Initiatives Manager Amy Huerta worked with a team of food processing industry leaders and produced the first-ever Fresno Food Expo, a tradeshow that gave 65 of our local food businesses the opportunity to display their products for over 150 buyers we invited in from such major entities as Costco, Save Mart, Wal-Mart, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and many more. Our goal was to give Fresno-based food businesses access to customers they could not reach on their own. The Expo was an unqualified success. Here are some examples:
· Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company – nearly tripled its distribution in Save Mart Supermarkets from 12 stores to 35 stores.
· Deb’s Gourmet – is doing a “road show” with Costco and will offer free samples of their pickled, flavored jalapenos. Based on the response to the product, Deb’s could be looking at their first major contract with Costco.
· Scattaglia Growers and Shippers – is currently working on contracts with Super King Markets which operates twelve locations in Southern California.
· Pappy’s Find Foods is close to a deal with Foster Farms to be the prime vendor for its value added products.
· P-De-Q – Entrepreneur Flavia Flores used the Food Expo to launch her business and will be opening a store front in Fresno in July on Echo across from Fresno High.
Pretty outstanding results for the first Fresno Food Expo! Some of these businesses are here today and have brought their products for you to sample. Be sure to stop by on the way out and try their products.
And…that’s not all we’ve done to help our local businesses. City Hall is doing its part to reinforce the Buy Local message. In partnership with the Fresno Bee, we have now produced and distributed 150,000 Local Business Directories. The directory contains listings for 1,500 locally owned businesses that have current business licenses with the City of Fresno. There are copies of the directories on your tables. Please take them with you, and the next time you’re looking for specialty breads, beauty supplies, or bicycle shops, just whip out your directory and go to page 12. Want a gift for a special baby shower? Don’t go to www.blahblahblah.com and get the same ‘ole thing everyone else will get. Go to page 17 in the directory and find a unique gift from one of Fresno’s 13 children’s boutiques.
If you leave here and misplace your Local Business Directory, don’t fret. It’s also available online at www.fresnolocalbiz.com. Now, remember, the businesses that are listed in these directories have current business licenses with the City of Fresno. And, not that any of you here would be operating a business without a license in the City of Fresno…but in case you know someone who is and they need to renew their business license, we’ve made it a lot easier. Just go to www.businesstax.fresno.gov.
The reason why we’re so focused on supporting local businesses is because of the positive economic impact and jobs that result. Did you know that if every Fresnan shifted just 10% of their spending each month to locally owned firms, we would add over $200 million and 2,000 jobs to the local economy?
To take our “buy local” efforts to the next level, I’m pleased to announce today “Local Bites,” a dine local campaign developed in partnership with the foodies over at Taste Fresno.
Here’s the idea – in this day and age, most of us are eating out at least a couple of times a month, right? Well, I’m asking you to make sure that on one of those occasions each month that you dine at a locally owned restaurant. That’s all there is to it – just eat out at a locally owned restaurant about once a month.
And, every month, I’m going to make sure I’m doing my part to grow this economy…Starting on Tuesday, June 14, at 5:30 p.m., we’re going to head to the original DiCicco’s Italian Restaurant in the Lowell Neighborhood on Blackstone Avenue for our Local Bite Night. We’ve got other Local Bite nights planned all through the summer. We’ll be going to Limon in July, Javier’s in southeast Fresno in August, and Wassabi in September. All of those restaurants and others like Casa Corona, Colorado Grill, Hero’s, Joe’s Steakhouse, and Sal’s have displays in the back. They’re here to make sure you know about the excellent choices you have when it comes to dining at locally owned restaurants. All of the dates and locations of my Local Bite Night schedule, as well as more information about the Local Bites initiative, is posted on the Taste Fresno web site, which is www.TasteFresno.com/localbites. Join me in making the commitment to support our local restaurants this year and make it a Local Bite Night about once a month. It’s a tasty way to grow the economy.
Now, let’s talk about the other component of economic growth – a qualified workforce. Growing businesses. Qualified workforce. If we stopped all of our other economic development efforts and did nothing else –and JUST focused on the education and training of our workforce –10 years from now, we will have broken the back of chronic, double digit unemployment in Fresno. It’s that important.
So, how are we doing as a city on this front? Fresno is fortunate to be served by four K-12 school districts, a host of private and charter schools, and over two dozen public and private community colleges, vocational training institutions, and universities. All are extremely important and play a significant role in where we’re going as a City, but I want to single one district out in particular today. And, that’s Fresno Unified School District. FUSD is the fourth largest school district in California serving 72,000 students every day. 81% of the District’s children qualify for free and reduced lunches. Fresno Unified is the heart, soul and future of our City. There’s no way around that fact.
There are 19 urban school districts in California – those are the districts with 20,000 students or more in them. In 2005, Fresno Unified ranked 18 out of 19 for the percentage of schools that were ranked 1and 1, the lowest of the low performing schools. 20 out of our 85 schools were ranked 1and 1. That was almost a quarter of our schools – the lowest of the low. Only Oakland was worse than we were and by just 3 tenths of a percent. So, basically, 5 years ago, we were tied for last place with Oakland among large school districts in California.
Now, five years later - looking at the 2010 data. The number of Fresno Unified Schools ranked 1and 1 went down from 20 to 4 schools. That’s an 80% reduction. We jumped from #18 of 19 in the state to #7 of 19, and, get this…no other large school district even came close to making the kinds of gains that Fresno Unified did. NOT EVEN CLOSE. We also saw a 13% increase in our average API scores over that same period. This is terrific progress for our schools and therefore for our city.
I don’t think for a second that the Fresno Unified Board of Trustees, Superintendent Hanson, the 10,000 faculty and staff, or the 35,000 district parents (of which Paul and I are two) are satisfied with where we are today. I know all of us better than that. When you compare Fresno Unified with other districts, there is still much room for improvement, but when you consider how far the District has come in such a short period of time, it is noteworthy and remarkable.
The leadership of Fresno Unified is here today – the Chair of the Board of Trustees Michelle Asadoorian, other board members, and Superintendent Hanson and members of his team. To all of you, please know how grateful we are for your leadership. Please, keep doing what you’re doing. You are on the right track, and you have the community’s support to keep going.
In keeping with our focus on education and training, I want to talk to you about another facet of this issue that is near and dear to my heart, and that’s adult education. Despite our 17% unemployment, there are thousands of jobs going unfilled in Fresno County. This is the heart of the matter for Fresno’s chronic unemployment rate and unless we recognize it and address it aggressively, we will not experience breakthrough on our unemployment levels. As promised in last year’s address, last fall I began working with the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and the Adult Education Task Force to figure out what we need to do to increase the education and skill level of those unemployed adults who lack a basic education. After focus group meetings and dozens of hours of research and evaluation, we concluded there are two barriers we must address as a community. The first is mindset – for the 69,000 adults in Fresno who lack a basic education, there remains a tremendous fear and anxiety towards going back to school. The second barrier is the complicated process involved with getting enrolled once you decide to go back to school. But, these barriers can be overcome.
That was Robert de la Torre’s experience. He grew up in the Bay Area and did ok in school until he started cutting classes – that’s when things got bad. He remembers thinking that schools were so big that he got lost. He fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up in trouble - minor trouble at age 14. By age 17, he was gang banging and ended up in the California Youth Authority system for 18 months.
He said the turning point in his life came when he was visited by a group of women who mentored him while he was incarcerated. The first thing he did when he got out was to get some work and start taking some night classes. When a job opened up at a major electronics company, he was already trained in the basics because he had been back to school. That led to more opportunities.
He eventually completed his degree in business management by going to school one day a week, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.
His advice: When you don’t know which path to take, you can be scared and do nothing, or you can take the first step and change your life. Be ready for when opportunity comes knocking. And the best way to be ready is through education.
The 69,000 in our community who don’t have a basic education need to hear Robert’s message – that you have to get ready for opportunity by going to school. They need to hear Janice Scott’s story. They need to know there are many resources available to help them get back to school and make it. That’s why later this Fall, thanks to support from Heald College and in partnership with Fresno Unified School District and the Cesar Chavez Adult School, State Center Community College District, the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, and the Adult Education Task Force, we will launch the Learn 2 Earn initiative – a public awareness campaign targeting adults who are still in need of a basic education. In addition to sending the message that it’s possible to go back to school and that everyone needs a basic education, the Learn 2 Earn initiative will involve an easier process for students to actually get enrolled in a program that’s a good fit for them. Instead of sorting through 28 different campuses and phone numbers, the Learn 2 Earn initiative will offer one phone number. With just one call, students will go through a preliminary assessment and be routed to the training and education institutions that may be best able to serve them. This effort has the potential to bring lasting change to our city, and I am anxious to launch Learn2Earn this fall, thanks to Heald College, which has pledged $100,000 to this effort. Eeve, Eric and Carolyn, I cannot thank you enough.
Now, our fourth and final “big rock” – neighborhoods and Downtown revitalization. The central and southern part of Fresno contains the highest concentration of poverty of any other large city in the United States - Right in the heart of our city. Not in Los Angeles. Not Miami. Chicago or New York City. That’s not good. Ultimately, this issue of concentrated poverty affects everyone in our city, but we don’t have to accept it as status quo.
Here’s what we’re doing. We targeted the Lowell Neighborhood to serve as the beta test for the City’s neighborhood revitalization efforts – we wanted to see if we could really turn a neighborhood around with better plans and better coordination of existing resources.
In the last year alone in Lowell, rehabilitation of 16 single family homes has gotten under way, and another 24 apartment units are being constructed or renovated. 347 code enforcement cases have been opened, and 231 of those cases have already been resolved. Over 70,000 square feet of graffiti have been removed, and a new park and children’s play area was added near San Pablo, thanks to grant funding from First Five. The neighborhood has seen a reduction in robberies, aggravated assaults, and burglaries.
And, that’s not all. This is probably the most exciting news yet. Research shows a correlation between the quality of the neighborhood a child walks to school in and their academic performance once they get to school. Since Spring 2009 when our efforts began, Lowell Elementary School has seen a 26% increase in math scores, a 9% increase in English Language Arts, and API scores are up 10 points. Attendance is up. Suspensions are down, and the school is outpacing the district in academic achievement. That is encouraging news. Congratulations to the principal of Lowell, Dr. Miguel Naranjo, and to your faculty and parents.
Data helps tell the story about improvements in one of Fresno’s roughest neighborhoods, but all the data in the world can’t capture the story quite like Aryany did. Last week at the Lowell community meeting, I walked into the school cafeteria and met Aryany. I asked if she was a Lowell resident, and she explained that she used to live in the neighborhood but that now she’s a student at Fresno State and moved over by the campus a year and a half ago. She said that night was her first visit back to Lowell in over a year. She looked at me with a bewildered look and said, “What’s happening in this neighborhood? It looks so much nicer than it used to. Everyone’s fixing up their houses on San Pablo.” Well, that about says it all. When you can drive or walk through a neighborhood and see the changes from the street, you know you’re on track.
So, where do we go from here with neighborhood revitalization? Lowell is serving as proof positive that we can reclaim neighborhoods in Fresno. But, how do we scale the relatively small efforts we’ve begun in Lowell and go after more neighborhoods – in fact, the entire 7,000 acre area that is the subject of the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan?
The only way possible in this era of diminished financial resources is to take the little bit of money and resource we have and re-form and re-purpose the function of those resources so that they are deployed more effectively. That’s just what our City Manager did earlier this spring with our department formerly known as Code Enforcement. Instead of simply issuing “drive by citations,” our code enforcement department is now the Community Revitalization Department and is commissioned it to work in a similar fashion as in the Lowell neighborhood in major target areas all over the City.
Now, let’s talk about our ongoing efforts to revitalize Downtown Fresno. Let me start by acknowledging how refreshing it is that I don’t have to begin this section of my speech trying to convince you that downtown is THE key to our city’s future. It wasn’t that long ago that there were debates in our Council Chambers and frequent letters to the editor asking whether Downtown was even worthy of saving. Well, that debate is OVER. Instead of whether to revitalize, our focus is on HOW to get it done. That’s an important shift.
So, what has happened to advance the Downtown Agenda in the last year?
As you know, my Administration’s approach to Downtown revitalization has focused on engaging property owners and the public to determine a clear vision and direction for Downtown. Based on that vision and direction, putting in place the right land use laws, development code, and infrastructure to build it out.
Through the development of the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan, the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, and the Downtown form based code, all of these issues are being addressed. You will recall that we kicked off these planning efforts in February 2010, just a little more than a year ago. In the last year in Downtown Fresno, we’ve had:
· Over 1,000 people participate in public meetings about the vision and plan for Downtown.
· 14 plan-related studies and analyses either completed or under way.
· Over 100 new residential units have gotten under construction in the last few months.
· 4 new restaurants have opened in spaces where restaurants previously went out of business.
· A new music club, Fulton 55, opened to sell out crowds multiple times a week.
· Grizzlies Baseball is off to a great start – season ticket sales were up 15% before the season began and sponsorships are up 28% this year.
Finally, in June, downtown property owners approved by a 2-1 margin the formation of a property based improvement district and are putting over $600,000 on the table each and every year to add amenities, fund a clean and safe program, promote Downtown events, help fill up Downtown buildings, and increase property values.
Looking ahead, this is a big, big year for the future of Downtown Fresno. All of the planning and preparation will ultimately lead to action in 2012. The draft of the new form based codes for Downtown Fresno is being released today for public review and comment at www.fresnodowntownplans.com. And, the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan and Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan will be released in early August. By early September, the City Council will initiate the environmental review process for these plans, and then, by about this time next year, the Council will be voting on a future for the Fulton Corridor and the Downtown Neighborhoods. As I said, this is a very, very big year for determining the future of Downtown Fresno.
Also on the Downtown Agenda in this next year, the City will begin the next phase of planning for the future High Speed Rail station and its surrounding area. Speaking of high speed rail, let’s talk about that for a minute. I get asked about this all the time – is it really going to happen? I love HSR! I hate HSR! Don’t take my property. Please take my property – I want to move anyway! This is my take on what’s going on. I absolutely believe in the importance of high speed rail to our city and to our state and am a genuine supporter. Turns out, there are some critics of HSR. Some of the criticism is legitimate. These issues must be worked out, and we need the best minds at the table resolving questions about alignment, financing and operating models. But, some of the criticism is simply political in nature, and I’ve got a problem with that. I represent a City that stands to benefit tremendously from high speed rail, and I don’t want political motivations masquerading as genuine concern about the project. Bring legitimate issues and concerns to the table and let’s see whether there’s a way to deal with them, and let’s expect to resolve those issues and to see high speed rail birthed in the United States in Fresno, California first. Because, state and Federal governments are going to spend billions…billions and billions…on maintaining and operating our existing roads and highways every year in this state anyway. Guess what? Those systems are failing. Even if we had the money to give every single Californian their own personal highway - it’s still going to take us 3 hours to get to San Francisco and only an hour on a fast train. The High Speed Car just isn’t going to do that for me. High speed rail has transformative potential, and because of that, it’s worth it to try to find a way to make it work. Cut the politics. Help solve the problem.
Alright, that’s enough ranting about high speed rail. No State of the City speech is complete without at least one mayoral rant.
Our time is short, and I must close.
I began this afternoon by reminding you where we’re going…that Fresno is a Turnaround City. We are to experience a turnaround of the City’s finances. A turnaround of our economy, our schools, and education levels. A turnaround on crime, and a turnaround of our blighted neighborhoods and Downtown.
That’s a big vision, and it’s really important to grab hold of it – to let it settle in to your heart and even imagine in your mind’s eye what it’s going to look like when business innovates and grows in our community; people start coming in off the streets; others go back to school and accomplish something they had long since have given up on. And, just imagine, when neglected neighborhoods are rehabilitated; and when Downtown Fresno becomes once again the center for culture, commerce, and entertainment for all of Central California.
That’s a big vision, and it’s going to happen. It IS happening.
Cynics will say, “we can’t really pull that off.” Cynicism is for cowards, and Fresnans are not cowards.
I am asking you today to take a risk with me and to believe in your city. When you believe something is going to happen, you act differently. You act according to your expectations.
My 7-year old son, Sam, just finished his Little League baseball season (15, 1 and 1 by the way, but we don’t keep score). I was out at one of his practices several weeks back, and the coaches were trying to teach the boys to catch fly balls. They had all the boys standing in a line…if you could call it that…and when it was his turn, each kid would step up to the front of the line. The coach would pop a ball up as high as he could into the air, and the kids were supposed to catch the ball. Some of them got it better than others. The coaches kept yelling, “Get your glove up! Get ready! Get your glove up!” They were working hard and really trying to prepare these kids.
A few weeks go by. It’s game day. And, it’s late in the game. My son’s team is up by one run (but we don’t keep score). It’s a tight game and it could go either way. The other team’s at bat. There’s 1 out. This little boy from the opposing team steps up to the plate and just rips the ball – he hits it a mile high and a mile long. A cheer explodes from the other side of the bleachers. No one expected this kid to hit the ball that well. He’s only 7, for crying out loud. So, the ball is flying out to center field, where sheer chaos has completely erupted. Mass hysteria has taken over - outfielders are running every which way, but then the preparation and the coaching that these kids had gotten kicks in. One little boy in the outfield, stops running, plants his feet, looks up, and he sticks that glove up in the air as high as he can. And, wouldn’t you know it –the ball dropped right into that boy’s glove. He caught it. The force of the ball when he caught it literally knocked the boy over. He fell to the ground, but he caught that ball because he was coached – he was taught to believe – to expect – that he was to catch that ball. At this stage in his life, he’s only 7, it was not his skill that allowed him to catch the ball. It was simply his expectations that caused him to act and get his glove up in the air.
There’s a lesson in that for us today, Fresno. What are we believing for? What are we expecting? Let’s believe for a complete turnaround of our City and let that expectation drive our actions. Let’s get our gloves up and expect to catch the pop fly.
And, that’s how we win. Week by week, month by month, year by year – walk in and work from a place of expectation – that we’re going to win. We’re going to change the course of the direction of an entire city…and our city, Fresno, is worth it.