I told my friend Dan Whitehurst that “Damn You, Dan Whitehurst!” would be the title of a chapter in my memoir (or is it autobiography—I get them mixed up). Since I haven’t written that book, I’ve made it a FresYes blog post instead.
Two days after being elected to the Fresno City Council 31 years ago, I met with my mentor Dan Whitehurst. Dan had previously been the youngest person ever elected to the City Council and is still the youngest Mayor in our city’s history. He is an incredibly intelligent, intellectually curious, charming, and humorous man.
At our meeting, Dan asked me to write down my three top priorities. I wrote:
- Revitalize the Tower District
- Revitalize Downtown Fresno
- Preserve/Restore the San Joaquin River Area
Those of you who know me know I can be forgetful about many things. But I still remember his advice like I’m listening to a recording. His words shaped my life. This is also why I can tease him with this blog’s title. He said,
Let’s take a look at the first two priorities together. You aren’t going to learn much about revitalization here. Fresno is an informational island, very little gets in and very little gets out. So I recommend that you pack your bags and start traveling. Meet with every Mayor, Redevelopment Director and Urban Developer that you can. Bring back information that will help you to achieve your priorities. Learn from the lessons of other cities, both the good and the bad. Look for their commonalities.”
I asked him why any of these people would take the time to meet with a 25-year-old guy.
They don’t know how old you are. Say Councilman Scharton from Fresno would like to meet with you to see what you’re doing to revitalize your city. They’ll see that you’re 25 when you show up in their office. They’ll be happy to give you guidance and share what they know. Most of us enjoy sharing advice with young, enthusiastic minds.”
So that’s what I did. I started making appointments with politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector investors in cities from San Diego to San Francisco. I started going to conferences where I could listen to presentations about what other cities were doing, and then would schedule meetings with the ones that seemed to be making the most progress.
After my first year of this exploration, I reported the first three commonalities that I’d found to my City Council colleagues.
- Downtowns usually had to fall on really hard times before the momentum could be generated to reverse direction.
- Out-of-town investors were often the first ones to buy property and to invest.
- There was usually a person or small group of people who took on revitalization as their primary challenge (often to their financial detriment).
I also started to notice a trend: the more I was learning, the less many people wanted to hear the information that I was sharing. This is the part of the advice my mentor had left out. Leaving the informational island to get new information to bring back to the island wasn’t met with cheering crowds. What I found was that uninformed opinions had taken hold so deeply, they didn’t really want to change or to be challenged. So I had to find new strategies.
We began a process to create a land use plan for the Tower District and Fresno High area. Instead of using the City’s planning staff with their old ideas to do this plan, we let the neighbors sit on a panel to choose the best planning consultants to help us to accomplish our goals. Neighbors and business owners had never been involved with selecting a team like this before.
The new strategy was to bring outsiders onto the informational island. Now I wasn’t the spokesperson for revitalization; others could share the information about what cities were doing to successfully change their neighborhoods and downtowns. The 21 members of the Tower District Specific Plan Committee had the opportunity to learn from some of the best and brightest minds in urban planning.
While I’ve been doing revitalization-related work for 31 years, I still find there is so much more to learn. Sometimes I learn formally, through education or at a conference. Sometimes a new idea comes from one of my Urban Entrepreneurship students or from a business owner in another city. Lifelong learning can happen in so many ways. I am grateful to have had good advice from a mentor early in my career. The goal isn’t to know everything, the goal is to go out and to learn, and then to find ways to make things better for a neighborhood or a city.
We also have many more residents who have lived in other cities and then returned to Fresno with the experience of how those cities revitalized. And we have people who have moved here, and they bring their experiences onto the island as well.
Enough of us have learned from other cities that it seems the tide has shifted. The City now has some dynamic leaders in the planning department who bring a wide range of expertise from other places to pair with their local knowledge. Information is flowing in and flowing out. People like James and and Deborah Fallows are writing in The Atlantic about the good things that are happening here.