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Chukchansi Park, the political football, is back

GeorgeByline

Every election season needs a Charlie Waters-Eddie Jimenez story to puts things in proper context.

This is my Charlie Waters-Eddie Jimenez story for the 2016 Fresno mayoral and City Council District 6 races.

Who are Charlie Waters and Eddie Jimenez? We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, we need to know the subject at hand. That subject is Fresno’s downtown multi-purpose stadium. You know – Chukchansi Park.

The city-owned stadium is some 15 years old. Not ancient, but old enough for city officials to be worrying about selected repairs that go beyond the “cosmetic” range.

Through an odd sequence of events, the stadium figures to be a bone of contention this election season.

It didn’t have to be that way. The candidates for mayor and Council District 6 could have had absolutely no direct connection to the stadium controversies of 20 years ago. They could have had absolutely no direct connection to City Hall’s financial controversies of almost eight years ago, a crisis tied in large part to the stadium.

But that’s not our reality.

The candidates for mayor are District 6 Council Member Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor (and former District 7 Council Member) Henry R. Perea, and community activist (and, briefly, 2004 mayoral hopeful) H. Spees.

Brand and Perea, in their own unique ways, are up to their eyeballs in the stadium situation.

The candidates for District 6 council member are clinical psychologist (and former District 6 Council Member) Garry Bredefeld, businesswoman Holly Carter and businessman Jeremy Pearce.

Bredefeld, as we will see, is up to his eyeballs in the stadium situation.

So, let’s say you’re a City of Fresno voter.

You say to me, “Hoss, I know all about the stadium. It’s that big thing on the southeast corner of Tulare and H streets. Me and the family, we’ve been there more than once.”

You say to me, “Hoss, what do you mean with this ‘stadium situation’ stuff?”

Finally, you say to me, “Hoss, I get the feeling you think something about the stadium’s past will become a campaign punching bag.”

I say to you, “Bingo.”

It all began in the late summer of 1987.

Fresno was in the midst of a decade of growth unprecedented in the city’s history. Our population from 1980 to 1990 would rise from 217,000 to 354,000. That a 63% jump. You’d have to go back to the early 20th century to find a bigger 10-year growth spurt by percentage. To add 137,000 people in a single decade was (and, to date, is) unheard of.

We Fresnans were feeling our oats. We were a city on the national radar.

This was true in sports, as well. Jim Sweeney was building a powerhouse football team at Fresno State. Margie Wright already had a powerhouse Fresno State softball program. Boyd Grant was gone from Fresno State, but the men’s basketball team retained its aura of excellence.

And Fresno was proud of its Fresno Giants Class A baseball team. The Giants, obviously, were an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Fresno and the parent club in 1987 were working on the 30th year of their seemingly perfect marriage.

Then everything turned upside down as the 1987 California League season progressed. Before you knew it, the parent club had cut its ties to Fresno. The Giants’ Cal League affiliate would be in San Jose the following year.

To add insult to injury, the grandstands at John Euless Park, the Giants’ home, were found to be rotten. They were torn down as the last moving van headed north.

Fresno, heading fast into the first rank of American cities, found itself in 1988 with an independent Cal League team (read: team of misfits) playing in front of tiny patches of fans sitting on aluminum bleachers.

Then even this independent team (called the Fresno Suns – or was it the Fresno Sunstrokes?) died after one year. For the first time since pre-World War II days, Fresno had nothing in the way of a professional baseball team.

Fresnans weren’t happy. That meant Frseno City Hall wasn’t happy.

The demand (take a bow, former City Council Member Rod Anaforian) to build a big-time pro baseball stadium somewhere in the city started immediately. Of course, the stadium needed a tenant. Everyone wanted a Triple A team – something that played in the historic Pacific Coast League.

Action on this dream got off to a slow start.

But three things happened in the 1990s that bear on our story.

First, the city’s voters in 1992 decided Fresno should dump its council-manager government and go to a “strong mayor” setup.

The latter consisted of six council members elected by district plus a mayor (elected citywide) who was the seventh council vote. There was no chief executive. Day-to-day operations were handled by a city manager accountable for his job to the council. Fresno in the late 1980s and early 1990s was said to have seven mini-mayors – a bunch of guys and gals with puffed up egos and a knack for incessant bickering.

The former is just what it says – a mayor with the strength to be a dynamic chief executive. The mayor would hire and fire the city manager. The mayor would craft a priority-setting budget. The City Council (creation of another district kept the roster at seven members) would be the legislative branch, co-equal to the executive branch.

It was all pretty nifty if you were the mayor. It was quite humbling if you were on a council with greatly diminished power.

The strong-mayor government went live in January 1997. Jim Patterson, the last mayor under the old council-manager government, was the first strong mayor.

The second key thing occurred just as Patterson took the reins of mayoral power. The long effort to land another pro baseball team began to bear fruit. It’s enough here to note that when spring 1998 arrived, the Triple A Fresno Grizzlies were a reality. The San Francisco Giants affiliate played its home games at Fresno State’s Beiden Field.

The third thing was to be found in downtown Fresno. The place needed lots of help. The city’s rush to the north had gutted what was once the central business core. Fresno was four decades into a brutal division of the haves and the have-nots. It was not for the first time that politicians at the state, county, state and federal level said something had to be done with downtown Fresno.

What was Fresno of the late 1990s to do? Why, create a plan, of course!

Actually, what unfolded was a bunch of plans. But by far the most interesting to Bee reporters of the era (such as myself) was the baseball stadium.

The Grizzlies needed a home field. How big? How expensive? Who pays? Where?

There were about three years where the debate on these questions rocked the foundations of Fresno’s political structure. The issue wasn’t so much the stadium’s location. Sure, some folks said the Grizzlies’ best chance at financial success was to follow just about everyone else and head to the north Fresno/Clovis area. But they had little influence. Downtown was the only practical choice.

But the stadium’s size, cost and owner – those were worth fighting over.

Let’s fast forward to September 2000.

The Grizzlies had just finished their third season at Beiden Field.

Patterson had only a few months before he was termed out of the mayor’s office.

What had been a large field of possible successors to Patterson had been culled to just two for the November runoff – Hollywood actor/former NFL quarterback Alan Autry and former Fresno Mayor Dan Whitehurst.

The City Council consisted of Tom Boyajian, Bredefeld, Perea, Chris Mathys, Sal Quintero, Dan Ronquillo and Ken Steitz.

The complex and often confusing negotiations between City Hall and the Fresno Diamond Group (the Grizzlies’ owner) over stadium details had finally found some clarity.

Patterson – profoundly skeptical of the Fresno Diamond Group’s financial stability, worried sick that the Fresno taxpayer would be taken to the cleaners – had been shunted to the sidelines.

The same was true of Patterson’s two allies on the council – Mathys and Steitz.

Boyajian, Bredefeld, Perea, Quintero and Ronquillo were in charge. That’s because the City Charter creating the strong mayor government also created a mayoral veto of council actions. But that veto could be overridden with a super majority.

“If we get five votes,” Ronquillo once said from the dais, “we can do what we want.”

The philosophical gulf between the council’s super majority on one side and the Patterson bloc on the other was a mile wide.

So, with Bredefeld leading the talks, the council supermajority cut a deal with the Grizzlies and their chief executive/president, John Carbray.

The talks for the most part were held behind closed doors. But details always leaked out to reporters, and with good reason. The deal inevitably was going to involve taxpayer money. The council supermajority and the Grizzlies wanted to bring along the same public that had been clamoring since 1988 for a spectacular stadium worthy of a city on the make.

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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