Fresno

Acquiring parks grants lays bare Fresno’s current state of affairs on parks

The Fresno City Council on Thursday will tackle two separate parks issues connected by a common theme: Proposition 68 funding.

Why aren’t the two issues merged into one hearing? The short answer: The politics of parks at City Hall remains fiery.

Proposition 68 was approved in June 2018. It authorizes the spending of $4.1 billion for, among other things, the creation and rehabilitation of state and local parks.

The money will be distributed in cycles via competitive grants. There currently is $254 million available in the statewide park program. The minimum grant is $200,000; the maximum grant is $8.5 million. There is no match requirement. There is no limit on the number of grant applications submitted by an agency. This context brought to you by a City Hall staff report.

Fresno’s Parks Department wants the Council to OK the submission of three Proposition 68 grant applications.

The first proposes the reconstruction of Quigley Park in West-Central Fresno (District 1/Council Member Esmeralda Soria). The second proposes the reconstruction of Radio Park in Central Fresno (District 7/Council Member Nelson Esparza). The third proposes construction of a new park at Church and Orangewood avenues in Southeast Fresno (District 5/Council Member Luis Chavez).

I didn’t see any cost estimates in the staff report or council resolutions. Park rehabilitation and construction isn’t cheap.

The staff report says the three proposed projects fit into the vision of the Parks Master Plan. The report says Parks Department personnel “engaged” each council member prior to selecting these three projects. The idea was to make sure Fresno’s applications are worthy of support from the Council and have the best chance of winning Sacramento’s approval.

Grant applications are due in August. Notification of the winners would come in early 2020. Work on the winning projects must be completed by March 2022.

It all sounds wonderful. Perhaps that’s why the three applications are bundled together on the consent calendar. City officials don’t expect any push back from the dais or the public.

Later in Thursday’s meeting, the Council will consider a request from Jose Leon Barraza, chief executive of the Southeast Fresno Community Economic Development Corp.

Barraza wants to apply for a $4.9 million Proposition 68 grant plus a $400,000 Cal-Fire grant. According to his nine-page letter to the Council, Barraza wants City Hall and his nonprofit to become partners in this effort.

The nonprofit’s focus is a nearly 50-acre city-owned site on Peach Avenue in Southeast Fresno. This site once belonged to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When the feds left, some community leaders thought the site would be a good spot for a state Veterans Home. For many years now, parks advocates such as Barraza have wanted a park/soccer complex on the site.

City Hall and Barraza even signed an adopt-a-park deal in February 2018. The deal gave Barraza and his team the authority to raise money and begin developing a portion of the Peach site.

As Fresnans learned during the Great Recession, money for the maintenance of parks is hard to come by, let alone finding the millions needed for construction of large new parks. Barraza says in his letter that some preliminary work has been done over the past 15 months on the Peach site. But the nonprofit’s vision for a modern soccer complex remains largely just that – a plan.

Barraza writes to the Council: “In order to meet the Proposition 68 filing deadline of August 5, 2019, we ask the Fresno City Council (to) direct City staff to add this project to the list of parks projects prepared by City staff to be included in the Proposition 68 application…”

The Peach site is in the district of Council Member Chavez. We chatted by phone on Monday.

Chavez said Barraza on Thursday will give the Council an update on his efforts since February 2018 to raise funds. Said Chavez: “I 100% support his efforts.”

Two big unanswered questions are: 1.) Should the Council decide to lend additional support to Barraza and his nonprofit, what form will that assistance take? 2.) What is going on with the Parks Department culture, which inevitably impacts department policy and morale?

It’s my understanding that the Council might consider a letter of support to accompany Barraza’s application for Proposition 68 funds. A letter of support from the legislative body of the state’s fifth largest city is certainly a valuable asset. But that’s not the same as a formal alliance. That is what Barraza would get if the Council directed the Brand Administration to turn Barraza’s vision into proposal No. 4 on the Parks Department’s Proposition 68 list.

That brings us to what’s going on behind the leadership doors of Parks Department headquarters on Divisadero Avenue.

Parvin Neloms Jr. left city employment in February after barely a year as Parks director. It’s my understanding that Shaun Schaefer, for many years one of the Parks Department’s hardest working and most respected executives, is no longer with the department. I’m also told that several other management-level employees have left the department for other jobs.

The current interim Parks director is T.J. Miller. She also serves as the city’s director of Customer Relations and Analytics. I’m guessing Miller’s long-term career ambitions don’t involve full-time work in parks administration.

The current Parks Department was described to me by a high-placed city official as a “meat grinder” of executive talent. That doesn’t surprise me. My wife worked for the Parks Department in the 1970s. The Fresno Parks Department has always chewed up its administrators. (I made two phone calls to the Brand Administration; no response.)

Some stability in Parks administration couldn’t hurt.

City Hall knows the value of nearly 50 acres of developable land in a part of town that needs more green space. City Hall knows the sobering cost of annual maintenance on green space.

City Hall knows all about the temptation of well-meaning community groups operating city-owned facilities at their own expense to eventually attempt to transfer all or part of maintenance costs back to City Hall (and, therefore, taxpayers).

As a backdrop to all this is Measure P, the failed sales tax initiative that would have generated millions of dollars annually for parks construction/maintenance, and the anticipated slugfest in the 2020 election between Mayor Lee Brand and challenger Andrew Janz.

Perhaps some council members and the Brand Administration are trying behind the scenes to come up with a compromise sales tax initiative that would fund both parks and public safety.

Perhaps city officials are looking to develop the Peach Avenue site themselves, and plan to seek money from Proposition 68’s second round of funding.

Perhaps Barraza and his allies deserve Fresno’s gratitude for keeping the Peach site alive, but simply don’t have the resources to get it done in a sustainable fashion.

At least that’s what I hear through City Hall’s always hopping grapevine.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.