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The Right Track: Delivering on parks and amenities tests Fresno's mettle

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Fresno’s knack for networking is about to get its toughest test ever.

A funky little walking track at Romain Playground symbolizes the challenge.

It all began for me about four years ago. Arthur Servin, a community activist I got to know at City Council meetings, invited me to a community get-together at Romain.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Romain. The park is on First Street, halfway between Belmont and Olive avenues in Central Fresno. My wife worked there in the mid-1970s when she was with the Parks Department.

So, early that Saturday morning in about 2012, I showed up at Romain.

The get-together was a working event. Dozens of volunteers joined forces with city workers to build a walking track around Romain’s perimeter. I interviewed kids with shovels and took photos. Then I wrote a short blog about the morning for The Bee.

The idea behind the get-together was simple. Walking is great exercise. There’s usually nothing wrong with walking along inner city Fresno’s sidewalks. But sometimes that’s less than ideal, especially if you’re alone. Why not build a track next to Romain’s fence line, enabling neighborhood residents to walk amid green space without interfering with the park’s softball and soccer games?

That’s precisely what those volunteers did back in the day.

Fast forward to early April 2016. I was sitting on a bench outside City Hall’s council chamber when Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo walked by. We got to talking about the positive changes coming to Romain. I walked to Romain that afternoon, looked for myself, and later wrote a story for CVObserver about some of the bigger changes.

But my CVObserver story didn’t touch on Romain’s walking track, even though that was one of the things that caught my attention.

Mollinedo and I had a more formal interview about Romain on April 12 in his office. We focused on the new skate park and the community garden about to take root. I brought up the walking track at the interview’s end.

“It’s more of a walking trail,” Mollinedo said.

He’s right. The trail is about a yard wide. I’m no expert, but it appears to be made of decomposed granite packed nice and hard. The trail is smooth, but not close to being flat. The loop isn’t continuous because of construction on the park’s west side.

Mollinedo and I had been talking about the long-awaited Parks Master Plan. Work on crafting the plan is about to begin, Mollinedo said.

I asked him: “Will the plan do something about public walking tracks, especially in Central Fresno?”

Said Mollinedo: “It may be one of the concerns that people bring up.”

I explained my thinking.

I live near Bullard High School. I usually drove north on Palm Avenue when going home from The Bee (The Bee building is on E Street in West Fresno). I noticed over recent years the growing popularity of Fresno High School’s all-weather track (located on Palm, a bit north of McKinley Avenue).

Adults and children – families – were out there all the time after school hours. They were walking or jogging. Sometimes I’d see a half-dozen people using the quarter-mile track. Sometimes there were dozens. The track is wide, so there is plenty of room for people moving at different speeds.

I came to a conclusion after a few years of observation, though I have no official statistics to support it. My hunch was this: Neighborhood residents were slowly but surely turning Fresno High’s all-weather track into a community treasure, and doing so entirely on their own. No government mandate, no government propaganda, was inspiring this evolution. No government official was overseeing or directing the people’s behavior on the track.

The people were handling things by themselves. There were developing “community intelligence” through trial and error. (What is “community intelligence”? Here’s Arnold Kling, writing in the latest issue of “National Affairs”: “Our knowledge does not come from individual brilliance. Instead, it comes from our ability to learn from one another and from the past. Progress comes from small experiments and cultural evolution.”)

I recounted all this to Mollinedo.

Then I told him about the nine-lane all-weather track at Bullard High. My story was much the same, but here I spoke from experience. I head to the Bullard track three or four times a week – been doing this ever since the old dirt track was transformed into its current condition four or five years ago.

Neighborhood residents use the track (after school hours) nearly every day of the year. I’m always struck by the good manners of just about everyone. Very rarely does a walker jabber away on his cell phone. The walkers almost always gravitate to the outside lanes, leaving inside lanes to the runners. Sometime there are groups of two or three, walking side-by-side, but they tend to keep their voices down.

A spontaneous order emerges.

Sometimes there’s trouble. For example, there are prominently displayed signs saying no bicycles or baby strollers or street shoes allowed on the track. One Saturday afternoon a middle-aged man rode his mountain bike onto the track. I was among 20 walkers and runners there at the time.

As the bicyclist approached me on his second lap, I turned and reminded him of the sign – no bicycles. He ignored me. I yelled at him on his next lap. He stopped about 20 yards in front of me and turned. He was a big guy. At just that time, a woman I’d gotten to know during my walks came running by. Her name is Alice. She is an investment banker and a long-distance runner. She appreciates the Bullard track.

Alice ran straight at the man.

“I’m calling the police,” she told him, and kept going.

The man did another half-lap on the track (to save face), then headed east on Browning Avenue. We never saw him again. Alice later told me she didn’t call the police. Didn’t need to – she and I had teamed up to instruct the bicyclist on the Bullard community’s standards.

Again, my point: A community walking/running track of sufficient size and quality can be a dramatic and permanent builder of the kind of community intelligence vital to vibrant neighborhoods.

I recounted all this to Mollinedo.

Fresno High and Bullard High, of course, are part of Fresno Unified School District. The district has it’s own mission and its own funding formula. City Hall’s Parks Department is not part of the district.

The district can’t put a high school in every Fresno neighborhood. That means Fresnans fortunate enough to live relatively near a FUSD high school with a first class all-weather track available to the general public during off-hours is unusually blessed. Those Fresnans who don’t live near such a high school are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the charms of safe and convenient walking courses.

“That’s not equitable,” I said.

Replied Mollinedo: “You bring up a legitimate concern.”

I’ve raised this issue before, but not always so bluntly. There was the time a few months ago that I bumped into Michelle Arax Asadoorian. She was the FUSD trustee representing the Bullard area when the high school track was rebuilt. On behalf of hundreds of walkers and runners, I thanked Asadoorian for her effort.

“Thanks to you,” I said, “every middle-aged man in Northwest Fresno now has a 32-inch waist.”

She simply had to look at me to know that’s not true. But I knew by the way she laughed that my point had gotten through: Leadership can make a difference in a community’s physical and mental health. She had earned the complement.

A few days after my interview with Mollinedo, I chatted about community walking tracks with Miguel Arias, Fresno Unified’s executive director of Community and Family Services. It was an informal talk – we leaned against the walls of a hall at FUSD’s downtown headquarters and shot the breeze for 20 minutes.

Prompted by my questions, Arias made these points, among others (I took no notes, so I apologize, Miguel, if I misheard you):

A.) There are several elementary and middle schools near Romain. The district does not build all-weather tracks at elementary and middle schools. Certainly cost is a factor. So is the relatively small size of these schools, built long ago when Fresno was a different town. To build a quarter-mile track at Yosemite Middle School would eat a big chunk of the school’s scarce green space. On top of that, elementary and middle school students, because of their young age, need closer supervision than high school students. A quarter-mile track would hinder that task during P.E.

B.) Roosevelt High School recently got a full-scale all-weather track. It is very popular with neighborhood walkers/joggers.

C.) The District is committed to modernized and equitable athletic facilities at all seven high schools. This will take time. The money for these improvements comes from a variety of sources. The Measure Q bond easily passed by voters in 2010 is not one of those sources. Measure Q money goes toward modernization and expansion of the more traditional parts of a school (think classrooms).

D.) Athletic facilities, including all-weather tracks, are viewed by many voters as “amenities.”

E.) The District’s Facilities Master Plan of 2009 identifies about $1 billion in needed repairs, improvements, additions. Measure Q funded about a third of that list. The District board is thinking about asking voters to extend the bond. This would provide money to tackle more projects in the Facilities Master Plan.

F.) All-weather walking/running tracks at elementary and middle schools aren’t part of the current Facilities Master Plan. But the plan can change according to community tastes.

G.) Before pulling the trigger on another bond vote, the Trustees told Superintendent Michael Hanson and staff to do some polling. Does the electorate have the stomach for Measure QII (or whatever it’s called).

I’ll bet a Kit Kat that the District didn’t go through all the trouble of a Facilities Master Plan and the 2010 Measure Q election just to let a high-profile modernization effort die one-third of the way done.

And here’s where we circle back to my opening sentence: “Fresno’s knack for networking is about to get its toughest test ever.”

Fresnans in 2016 almost certainly will be bombarded with pleas from government officials, union leaders and community activists to modernize the complex infrastructure of a city long criticized for its inequitable distribution of public assets.

We’ll have an extensive outreach by City Hall to get everyone involved in crafting the Parks Master Plan.

We’ll have the polling and then the debate on extending the bond needed to continue funding FUSD’s $1 billion Facilities Master Plan.

We’ll have a mayoral election in June (and possibly a runoff in November). The central theme of the campaign is rebuilding Fresno after the near-bankruptcy crisis of the Great Recession. We’re talking more spending for police, fire, parks, street repairs and code enforcement.

We’ll have a reinvigorated debate about Measure R. Remember Measure R? That was the short-lived idea out of portions of City Hall about a “restoration” sales tax bump much like the Measure C transportation tax. Make no mistake, the enthusiasm for Measure R is building again in portions of City Hall. After all, the survivor of the mayoral election must quickly find a pot of money to fulfill at least some of those promises made on the campaign trail.

At this point, let me add three other elements to this public policy goulash. 1.) Fresno has a growing problem with violent crime. According to Police Department statistics, Fresno had 849 violent crimes through April 13, a 27.3% jump from the same period in 2015; 2.) The City Council this Thursday is slated to debate the new “housing element” produced by the Development and Resource Management Department. The housing element combined with the Obama Administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule means one thing for Fresno – government has had enough of housing for poor people being stuck exclusively in neighborhoods like those surrounding Romain Playground; 3.) The City Council soon will review the official contract between FUSD and City Hall for the opening of green space at certain schools to the public during off hours. The review could come as soon as April 28. This deal (Central Unified is part of it, too) is designed to silence critics who say City Hall doesn’t do enough to provide parks and recreational services to struggling neighborhoods in older parts of town.

Now do you see my point?

One of two things will happen in 2016.

These various public policy challenges will proceed independently. There will be no combination of will and resources to maximize the benefit to Fresno.

Or, Fresno’s elites will huddle with the People to see if there’s way to coordinate everything for maximum success.

I’m not looking for perfection. But surely there’s a way to deliver a better walking track at Romain Playground.

Arthur Servin and I would be happy to test it.

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

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