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How A Small Group Of Fresnans Got The State To Change Course And Send $70 Million Their Way

Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Chris Finley looks at land that he thinks could become a community college

It’s not usually easy to get the state of California to quickly adjust how it spends money in places like the Central Valley, especially after the Governor Jerry Brown himself comes to town for a major bill signing.

But that’s exactly what a group of activists in Southwest Fresno were able to do, convincing the state to make their part of town eligible for $70 million in cap-and-trade funding.

Activist Chris Finley was part of the effort to pressure the state to shift a pot of money from the cap-and-trade program from downtown to Southwest Fresno and Southeast Fresno, among other areas.

Near an empty field he reflects on the decades of what he considers to be broken promises of investment.

“The field looks exactly how it has since I was little. And also a lot of the other fields around here. The ones on Elm have been there. Also the other parts of the city, they haven’t been developed,” Finley says.

"You see them basically taking care of business like they do on the north side of town like Fashion Fair and River Park. Some of those things need to be in West Fresno. I think the people deserve that," Chris Finley

For Finley, this field and others like it represent the missing potential of the community. If only, Finley says, people followed through on their past promises and spent the money earmarked for west Fresno things would be different.

But now, Finley thinks he and his neighbors have finally notched a win that could spark a change: convincing the state to invest $70 million dollars from a new program called Transformative Climate Communities.

“Which I think is long overdue. I think part of the main issue is lack of jobs and lack of opportunity for the citizens of west Fresno,” Finely says.

Initially, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last fall, Governor Jerry Brown joined then Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and other politicians on top of a parking garage in downtown Fresno to sign a law creating the Transformative Climate Communities program or TCC.

The goal is to direct money from the state’s cap-and-trade program to offset some of the worst impacts of climate change and pollution and improve living conditions in historically underserved areas.

It ordered the state to direct the $70 million to a 1-mile radius around the yet to be built high-speed rail station for things like parks, bus stations, and mixed use buildings with housing and retail. The vision is to combat and respond to climate change in one of the most dangerously polluted areas of the state.

At the bill signing, Mayor Swearengin laid out the thinking behind centering the spending around the downtown rail station, pointing out project after project that could stand to benefit.

“Just across the street from us we have another 200 housing units planned, 1,000 units just in this immediate six block area. With another 10,000 units planned over the next 20 years. So this truly is ground zero for the transformation of this city and this region,” Swearengin said.

It’s a compelling sales pitch that Governor Jerry Brown wholly endorsed.

But activists like Veronica Garibay with the Leadership Counsel on Justice and Accountability took one look at that idea and said ‘hey, that’s not really the spirit of the TCC.’

“We can’t say ‘Wait, West Fresno. Wait, again’ even though the reason why Fresno is getting this money is largely because of what is happening in you census tract,” Garibay says.

Garibay believes the idea of TCC is to improve living and transportation options in the hardest hit areas, not just places that happen to be close to the station.

“If we are talking about economic, environmental, and social transformation, if we are talking about economic development, then we have to talk about West Fresno,” Garibay says.

So Garibay and other local advocacy organizations gathered up a bunch of Fresnans, put them on a bus and headed to Sacramento.

They packed a meeting of the Strategic Growth Council, which sets the rules for the TCC money, and issued a series of comments begging for change like this one from a teen named 12-year-old Dyami Hunt.

"Please do what you can to help me and everyone in southwest Fresno to have a healthy environment. Thank you," 12-year-old Dyami Hunt

“Like most kids I have asthma. And on most days the air is too dirty and stinky to go outside. Please do what you can to help me and everyone in southwest Fresno to have a healthy environment. Thank you,” Hunt says.

And as it turns out the council listened.

Rather than spend all the money within a mile of the station, the council changed the rules so that it will be in a continuous five square-mile area with the highest pollution.

In other words, parts of downtown, Chinatown, southeast and West Fresno are now all eligible for the money. And yes, some of that can still be spent around the station.

In order to access the whole $70 million, the city will need to demonstrate it can raise $35 million additional dollars in matching funds.

The complaints from West Fresno residents are familiar to anyone who has spent much time in area.

Credit Jeffrey Hess/KVPR

Danielle Bergstrom with the Central Valley Community Foundation has been helping craft the spending proposal that the city is going to send to the state by this fall. She says the feelings of neglect and the desire for help are repeated over and over.

“More parks. Or more trees to offset a lot of the localized air pollution that is created because of the freeways. We have heard that concern a lot. And of course housing. We hear all the time that people want more housing opportunities, affordable and market rate, both in downtown and in southwest Fresno. And that is a concern that many, many people have,” Bergstrom says.

And that what Chris Finley sees when he looks at a barren field that has been untouched for decades. He envisions a community college or a mixed use apartment complex, or even just sidewalks and parks.

“Something where you see traffic. You see people there. You see them shopping. You see them basically taking care of business like they do on the north side of town like Fashion Fair and River Park. Some of those things need to be in West Fresno. I think the people deserve that,” Finley says.

And the change won’t just affect West Fresno, it could benefit areas just like it all up and down the first section of high-speed rail line.

The spending is only starting in Fresno because the line is starting here. Activists believe every subsequent city with a rail station will also get their turn.

And now, if the change stays in place, their most impacted areas could get a boost thanks to residents of West Fresno.

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.