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Fanfare over, jobs become focal point of Brand's first year

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Seven weeks into the gig, Lee Brand has finally hit his stride as Fresno’s mayor.

Gone is the fleeting excitement of being sworn in as Ashley Swearengin’s successor. That pesky and thankless regulatory chore – the Rental Housing Improvement Act – is done. The tempest in a teapot called “Sanctuary City Status” is yesterday’s news.

Brand is ready to fulfill his most important campaign promise.

“The major thrust in my administration is economic development – creating jobs,” Brand said Thursday during a speech at Fresno State.

He said it with the smile of someone who survived mayoral boot camp.

The venue was the Gazarian Real Estate Center in the Craig School of Business. About 100 students, faculty and business leaders filled a small auditorium. Brand’s topic: “Fresno’s Economic Future: Worst to First with Common Sense Solutions.”

Actually, there was no need for the plural. Brand delivered a message that suggests one solution is enough: Spark economic growth across all 112 square miles of the city, thus improving the lives of all 525,000 residents and expanding a tax base that pays for the full array of municipal services.

Brand began with a brief review of his professional career, familiar to anyone who paid attention to last fall’s mayoral campaign: Fresno State graduate, partner for 38 years in Westco Equities (he sold his interest before taking the mayor’s oath), eight years as City Council member.

Westco Equities is a major player in the local real estate market. The venue and audience all but screamed “real estate!” Brand couldn’t resist the temptation to talk a little shop.

“Real estate has been very good in the city of Fresno, for anybody who has been in the business,” Brand said. “Prices are up in the rental housing market. It’s the best rental market that I’ve seen in 38 years in the business. Things are looking good.”

But the Mayor didn’t linger there. He had a point to drive home. The first chore was to explain Fresno’s economic woes when he (and Swearengin) took office in January 2009.

The Great Recession was upon the land.

“During my tenure on the council, I concentrated primarily on fiscal reform,” Brand said. “We passed a lot of legislation that forces the city to act responsibly. When I started with the City of Fresno, we were in junk bond status. We were basically $40 million in the hole (the negative fund balance problem). Our service levels had dropped to under 700 police officers; we started with 830. By duct tape, and a wing and prayer, we kind of kept services together that first term.”

Brand was constantly writing legislation (which got passed and signed) making it all but impossible for City Hall to do things like co-sign on multi-million-dollar bank loans to clueless outfits such as The Metropolitan Museum.

On top of that, the internal loans got paid off and the general fund reserve began growing from dimes and quarters to millions of dollars.

“Mayor Swearengin was a great leader in saving this city from bankruptcy,” Brand said. “We were literally one payroll period away from bankruptcy. Eight years later our credit rating is up from junk bond status to investment grade A.

“What that means in dollars and cents is that the city is now trying to find ways to restructure bond financing. We’re not extending the terms. We’re simply finding better rates. A good credit rating makes a huge difference in your rates. What we’re doing right now will probably save the city at least $5 million in this year alone, and over time an average of $1.5 million over the next 15 or 20 years. That’s all because we have a strong credit rating.”

Brand was making two points. First, whether you’re a person or a municipal corporation, it’s simply amazing how much brighter the future looks when you’ve got your finances in order. Second, it’s equally amazing to ponder how stupid Fresno was back in the borrow-borrow-borrow era. (OK – that second point was obvious only to an old City Hall reporter.)

Fresno’s strengthened financial picture means City Hall has an easier time making friends.

Brand said his administration, the City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors will be a tight and effective alliance in the coming years. Among the common issues: Public safety, animal control, land-use regulation, groundwater management and, yes, economic development.

“This is nothing but good news for everybody in the county and everybody in the city,” Brand said. “This collaboration extends to the school boards – State Center (Community College District), Fresno Unified, Clovis, Central – we’re working closely with our partners on things like career technical education, which is a major component of where we’re going to go as a city.”

In a quick aside, Brand said City Hall is embracing neutrality where it counts most.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of turmoil” in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, Brand said. “Fresno is caught in the middle, between a Republican administration in D.C. and a Democratic governor and legislature in Sacramento. Everybody knows there’s a war of words going on about immigration and a number of other things. My path is to keep us focused in the City of Fresno on what is best for the City of Fresno. I am walking a fine line between the powers that be in Washington and Sacramento.”

City Hall is on its feet financially, Brand said, but historic tests loom.

“We got through the worst of times, but still there are many challenges out there,” Brand said. “No. 1 – and this is a national problem as well as a state problem – is infrastructure. Everyone is trying to keep the parks open, fix the potholes. But over time, infrastructure is crumbling everywhere.”

For example, Brand said, Fresno’s parks system in the coming years will need more than $100 million of maintenance and capital improvements just to keep things from falling apart. The Convention Center needs at least $10 million of immediate care. Chukchansi Park over the next 20 years needs nearly $25 million of improvements.

“I start adding and adding and adding – that’s a lot of money,” Brand said. “But if you don’t take care of your infrastructure, you’re going to end up looking like Detroit. You have to take care of your city.”

Fresno’s other major challenge is poverty.

“Roughly a third of the population is in poverty,” Brand said. “It’s a town of extremes. You’ve got great wealth in North Fresno, and extreme poverty in South Fresno. 93701, which is Southwest Fresno, has a 29% unemployment rate. 93720, where I live, is about 7% or 8%.”

Brand by this point had laid the foundation of his speech: Fresno by the skin of its teeth avoided imploding during the Great Recession; the near-death experience caused City Hall and the community as a whole to have its fiscal consciousness raised; the needs out there are great; all of us are in the same boat, so it’s time to pull together.

“Simply doing the status quo will not solve the problems,” Brand said.

The lazy don’t succeed in the real estate world. So, too, in the job-creation world.

“I’m going to fly to Seattle probably in about a week to talk about Amazon coming here,” Brand said. “Amazon is talking about an e-commerce center. So we’re bringing in new industry. I call it net new revenue, net new jobs. There are no major e-commerce centers in Fresno. Amazon is getting close. I’ve heard their development company is even pulling permits. There’s 3,000 jobs. These jobs produce the secondary effect of other jobs – 3,000 jobs, 4,000 jobs could turn into 10,000 jobs. Now we’re talking about a transformation of the economy in the city of Fresno.”

Brand in quick succession listed other major job-producing projects at various spots in the pipeline: A massive expansion of Downtown’s Community Regional Medical Center; the $500 million Recharge Fresno initiative; the $70 million Cap and Trade grant earmarked mostly for development around the Downtown bullet train station; the pursuit of High-Speed Rail’s maintenance yard.

“I’ve just laid out about 10,000-plus jobs in the City of Fresno,” Brand said. “I think the biggest single (economic) expansion in my lifetime – and I’ve been here for over 50 years – is going on right now.”

There’s a flip side to creating all these jobs, most of them likely to pay good wages.

“In my opinion,” Brand said, “the biggest challenge facing Fresno will not so much be creating jobs but having a ready workforce. We have a lot of our population that is not qualified and does not have the education to get there. So, part of what I have to do is to find a way to get to those people who are not engaged in the recovery process, in the prosperity process. As I mentioned earlier, career technical education, which has been talked about for years in Fresno, is starting to become a reality.”

There was no chanting from the audience throughout Brand’s 40-minute talk (including a question-and-answer period). No one waved signs with angry messages. In fact, the event ended with a nice round of applause.

In my opinion, that’s because the Mayor was spot on. Justice and equity don’t come from government coercion. They come from unity and work.

“We have to find a way to engage our entire community,” Brand said. “Nothing in this city will ever be successful unless we engage the entire community. We can’t just look at North Fresno and leave South Fresno behind. The whole city has to participate in the prosperity.”


Photo: The Collegian · Fresno State

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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