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High Speed Rail Forces Out Longtime Fresno Businesses

For most of the past century, the building that sits on the southwest corner of Fresno and G Streets in downtown Fresno has been passed down from generation to generation.

“My family has owned the property since right after the turn of the century,” says Gary Lanfranco , owner of the Cosmopolitan Bar and Grill. His father passed along the restaurant to him in 1968.

“In 1933 when prohibition was repealed my father and uncle came here and started The Cosmopolitan Tavern, previous to that it was a boarding house.”

The eatery serves up everything from tri-tip sandwiches at lunch to Giovanni’s gnocchi at dinner.

In 1998, Gary’s son Joseph joined him in serving old time Italian cuisine, hoping to carry on the family’s legacy.

“He’s the fourth generation, he came to work for us in 1998, and he’s really the driving force behind it now,” Lanfranco said. “He’s the reason we’re still in business.”

But the restaurant's fate now lies in the hands of someone outside the family, the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The reason: “We’re being replaced, displaced actually,” Lanfranco says.

The Cosmopolitan lies in the path of a planned underpass along the impending high speed rail corridor. 

“It’s gonna be torn down,” Lanfranco says. “They’re extending the Fresno Street underpass and I believe the infrastructure will be taking a portion of the front of our building. It’s supposed to be a big project and it’s supposed to be coming soon.”

The rail system’s first phase, a 29 mile segment from Madera to downtown Fresno is scheduled for completion by 2018. The cost? Just under $1 billion dollars.

"I've received an offer and I have not settled on it yet, because it really isn't enough for me to replace what I have" - Gary Lanfranco

Construction was supposed to begin this fall, but is now expected to begin in 2014. But that’s not stopping the High Speed Rail Authority from moving forward. In April the authority sent out 150 offers to businesses along the first stretch, ranging from mom and pop restaurants to large scale manufacturers. A total of 51 offers have been agreed upon.

The Cosmopolitan was one of the many business offered a buyout.

“I’ve received an offer and I have not settled on it  yet, because it really isn’t enough for me to replace what I have,” Lanfranco says.

Not enough money is exactly why ValPrint -- a 60-year-old print and design firm located one block north of the Cosmopolitan -- has hired a Fresno based appraiser. They too are trying to fight for a better deal than was initially offered  by the Rail Authority.

“Ideally we would like to be able to consolidate all of our operation into one building,” says Jack Emerian, the owner of ValPrint. “That’s under consideration now because relocating our distribution center a few miles away is going to incur more cost and will not be as efficient.”

Emerian says the bullet train will knock out the company’s warehouse and two of his rental properties.

He says the Rail Authority offered him $430,000 for the warehouse, but that the building is worth more than $700,000. Emerian, who supports high speed rail, says his biggest concern about the process is that he might have to go into debt to reestablish his business.

“Our issue is to really find comparable properties that we can either acquire or build and we’re way off on the price to do that because we don’t have to incur additional debt to replace those properties,” Emerian says.

The rail authority is negotiating with Emerian to work on a comparable deal.

Diana Gomez, the Central Valley Regional Director for High Speed Rail, says that offers and negotiations with businesses and property owners along the first leg of construction are going well.

“Our goal is to work with everybody as early as possible so they can be relocated somewhere within the city and maybe not lose any downtime,” Gomez says.

Gomez says the High Speed Rail Authority has every intention to work with those impacted by the bullet train.

"I am resigned to the fact and I am willing to make it work as long as the state helps me make it work. I'm not trying to make any money of this thing. I just want to stay whole." - Gary Lanfranco

“Our goal is to minimize the impacts and to insure them that we want to do what’s right by ever single property owner that’s impacted,” Gomes says.

She also says the Economic Development Corporation for Fresno County has been an integral part in finding new homes for those in the region being relocated.

“Right now it’s in that learning stage of when things are going to happen and how things are going to happen and that is one of the reasons we got involved is so they can have an advocate to help them through that process,” says Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County EDC.  

She says the EDC’s goal is to retain business in Fresno County.

“We contacted High Speed Rail Authority, the City of Fresno and Fresno County and said let’s work together to keep our businesses here,” Eager says.

She says the group is working with every business along the corridor, to not only find new locations, but to make sure negotiations with the rail authority are fair.

But back at the Cosmopolitan Gary Lanfranco and son are facing an uncertain future, including the possibility that the landmark Fresno restaurant might have to temporarily close before it finds a new home

“I’m afraid by being closed for a certain period of time I am going to lose some really great help and that’s difficult,” Lanfranco says. “The High Speed Rail people I just don’t think they understand the situation for some people especially with a history like we have. We’re doing well in an area we’re not supposed to do well in.”

He fears that his customers may not come back - not because of a lack of loyalty -  but rather lack  of parking.

“I need a building approximately the same that I have, 5,000 square feet, a parking lot that parks 40 cars and I need no debt - that’s exactly what I have now,” Lanfranco says.

But despite all Lanfranco’s fears about the coming change, he says he’s not going to fight the bullet train.

“But you know I am a big boy,” Lanfranco says. “I am resigned to the fact and I am willing to make it work as long as the state helps me make it work. I’m not trying to make any money of this thing. I just want to stay whole.”

Lanfranco says he hopes to know more about the Cosmopolitan’s new location in the coming months. 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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