Fresno Mayor Lee Brand says he has a vision to create 10,000 new jobs in Fresno and drop the unemployment rate to 5%. That would be a significant accomplishment for a city where the unemployment number is routinely above the state average. One major piece of that vision fell into place last week with the announcement that Amazon will build a fulfillment center in Fresno. Valley Public Radio spoke with the mayor about how he plans to achieve his jobs goal and the first steps already taking place. This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Amazon has announced it will build an Internet fulfillment center in Fresno, how big of a deal is this?
Amazon has been [doing] a lot of work for a lot of people over the past six-plus months. There is a lot behind the scenes, particularly in the last two or three months, in getting the site ready. Getting permits. And going through all the bureaucracy you have to get this site shovel ready. I’m very pleased with Amazon. I think they are a good fit for Fresno. We believe we will start out with 1,500 jobs and we have the capability to move up to 2,500 jobs.
What is the actual work happening at the plant?
I understand they are going to specialize in smaller items. Because you have to remember they ship just about everything. They ship books, big screen TVs, microwaves and bicycles. They are going to be shipping items out of this plant in Fresno. And their market, if you look at a map, within one day they can ship up to about Seattle to the north. To the border at San Diego. To Nevada and Oregon. So you have probably 50-60 million people. It was no coincidence they choose Fresno.
Do we have space to bring in more of these plants?
No, there is more work we need to do. I have got city staff meeting every few weeks to evaluate and prioritize what we need to do. This site is roughly about 1,000 acres in that reverse triangle of highway 99 and highway 41 between Central and North Avenues. My goal in that area is to have 10,000 jobs in the next 8 years in my time as the mayor of Fresno. It is not by coincidence these things happen. You have to be prepared. You have to invest the money. It is going to take a focused effort by me and my staff to make sure we can achieve that goal.
Do we have the workforce in place to actually fill these jobs?
The good thing about a lot of these e-commerce jobs is that it is a high school diploma and some experience in computer operations. So a lot of people are going to qualify. The training won’t be that difficult. But it is important that we make sure all these jobs are local jobs. And it is not just Fresno. It will be people from Kerman and maybe Selma and Kingsburg. It is going to have a tremendous effect on our economy. The ripple effects will be felt for years to come.
But are these decent jobs?
Take Amazon for example. I believe they start at $15 dollars an hour. That is the starting wage. They have full health, dental and vision. They have 401Ks. They really are a good company to work for. There are tremendous opportunities for people to start out. Those are the kinds of employers Fresno needs.
Amazon has, in part, contributed to the decline of retail sales. Are these new jobs or just moving existing jobs around?
For Fresno, there is no question we are creating net new jobs. So by having a distribution center in Fresno, does that mean that there is a retail store in Ohio that will lose 50 people? What is going on across the country with some of the older companies like Sears and J.C. Penney, they have not adopted changing technologies and styles. So they are losing. Right now, which is amazing, e-commerce accounts for 8% of retail sales. That shows you the tremendous potential for other companies to expand into e-commerce. A good example is Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, at one time, was getting hit pretty hard by Amazon on their e-commerce model until they said ‘we need to start e-commerce’. They have got one-million square foot centers. Hopefully, one day they will come into Fresno and be part of that business park. These are net new jobs to Fresno.
Any hints that other companies are interested in the near future?
Success breeds success. We have a list of the job site locators both independent people and those who work for companies. So every time we land Ulta Beauty or Amazon, they are going to know that Fresno landed it. And they are going to say ‘maybe I should look at Fresno. I am missing something here’. And I am going to capitalize on that.