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Are The Planning Stars Finally Aligned For Southwest Fresno?

A new chapter in the history of a long-neglected Fresno neighborhood could be just around the corner. Some residents in southwest Fresno say they are seeing a critical mass of plans falling into place to unlock the neighborhood's long trapped potential. The approval of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, moving the Darling meat rendering plant, and the expected influx of tens of millions of dollars in state development funds have all been approved this year. And some believe this confluence of events will be the tipping point toward growth and revitalization.

Among the hopeful is Courtney Gooch. She is a 26-year old Fresno native who returned from college two years ago to purchase her very first home, a ranch-style house on a third of an acre on Kearney Boulevard.

She says she it took a sharp eye to see the potential in her new home.

“I bought this house and it was a one owner and it hadn’t been remodeled since the 1960’s so, I saw it and fell in love with it,” Gooch says.

Gooch is a ball of energy and enthusiasm when talking about home which she has spent the better part of the last two years bringing into the modern age. New floors and ceilings, a trendy ‘open concept’ floor plan, and plenty of room to grow with extra bedrooms and a backyard basketball court.

“It’s actually quiet in the evenings. So I like it! I have a little side area, my plan is to put a garden over there,” Gooch says as she looks over the large backyard.

Gooch loves showing her home to old high school friends and thinks many of them are ready to become new neighbors, especially because she believes the new combination of plans will make southwest Fresno much more attractive.

“There is a lot of people who leave and they don’t come back. And they forget about where they came from. And it is going to take people like me to come back and revitalize this area. And let people now that young, educated, single women want to be in this area and we want to continue to help it to grow,” Gooch says.

Within the past few weeks, the Fresno City Council has approved a new specific plan for the area intended to streamline and accelerate the development of new homes and businesses. The long-maligned Darling rendering plant has been approved to move out of the neighborhood and into a remote area outside of town. And plans are nearing completion on how residents in the area would like to spend $70 million in cap and trade funds set aside specifically to improve their community.

Gooch says this is the critical mass of projects the area has been waiting for not just a fresh coat of paint.

Fresno City Councilmember Oliver Baines represents southwest Fresno and parts of downtown. For much of the last eight years, he has been pushing to implement new planning documents that will both guide and ease development.

He contends the foundation of southwest Fresno did not crumble of its own accord but rather as the result of years of unfocused half-plans and neglect.

“I will tell you what we will see in the very near future is much more investment in southwest Fresno. As you have already noticed. Because there are so many people closely watching this process. People who invest in neighborhoods and invest in retail and house and commercial development. They are excited to now come and invest in Southwest Fresno,” Baines says.

Baines says each of the three pieces all fit together. Moving the Darling plant, which was blamed for creating foul odors and contributing to industrial traffic, is as important as bringing in new development dollars.

Those development dollars could be coming in the form of $70 million in cap and trade funds the state has set aside for polluted and impoverished areas like southwest, Chinatown and downtown Fresno. The portion that is headed to southwest Fresno is intended to spur local government and private development dollars. To access that money, developers and governments must offer a match of fifty cents on the dollar.

The city is nearing complication of a list of projects they want to see funded under the so-called Transformative Climate Communities program or TCC. Everything from new multifamily construction, amenities like community gardens and parks, and maybe even a new satellite campus of Fresno City College.

College president Carole Goldsmith says they have long eyed a new campus in the area. She says the new addition could inject fresh life from nearby towns not just from the southwest Fresno community.

“California’s first community college has another opportunity to be a first in our history. And that is really to take a bold step to start to change the narrative of Fresno having a tale of two cities,” Goldsmith says.

While the draft TCC plan has an expectation of where the community college would be built, Goldsmith says they still have to go through their process before any final decisions are made.

While a new community college is a big get, there are many smaller projects also in line to help pad out what many people consider to be basic amenities like grocery stores or access to fresh fruits and veggies.

Fresno Metro Ministry says they are planning to establish a community garden where residents can grow their own food.

But organizer Tom Matott cautions this is just the front door, not the finished home.

“But if these are going to be answers, growing food directly in those communities that those have access to it, we are going to need to have lots of them. There is not just one site. We have big farms all over the place and we still have issues around access,” Matott says.

For Courtney Gooch, she says she is ready an excited to take on the challenge and thinks, for the first time in a long time, there are many more people like her ready to jump in.

“So it is not something that people have to get ready for, we have been ready. Now it is just getting it going and not allowing it to stop where it is at now,” Gooch says.

The city and activists have made big promises to residents to earn back their trust, now they will be watching closely to see if this time, change is on the way.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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