Las palmeras se alinean en el camellón de Ventura Avenue mirando al este desde Seventh Avenue hacia Kings Canyon Road y el sureste de Fresno, el jueves 2 de marzo de 2023. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Credit: CRAIG KOHLRUSS

What's at stake?

New amenities and business are coming to southeast Fresno. ​Some are raising concerns about the city’s history of incentivizing business in the area and fear new projects will hurt existing small businesses.

With new amenities, housing, and commercial retail projects on the way, Fresno city leaders are making big promises on the potential changes coming to southeast Fresno.

Many are celebrating these changes as long overdue, while others question whether they will improve the quality of life for southeast Fresnans. The area has long experienced high rates of poverty, lack of investment and neglect.

Lilia Becerril has lived in southeast Fresno for over 25 years. She owns a carpentry business with her husband and volunteers in the community with her organization, Familias en Acción.

She said southeast Fresnans need basic amenities, such as affordable housing where people aren’t packed “like sardines,” more green space, pediatric and health clinics, and grocery stores.

“We need a lot of things to be accessible for everyone – especially low-income families,” she said. The 93702 zip code around the Fresno Fairgrounds has a 39% poverty rate and a median household income of $32,418, census data shows. “If we live in southeast Fresno, we’re low-income,” she said. “Unfortunately, sadly, it’s the reality.”

Some projects promise to deliver on these needs. A new regional park is in the works. A new Fresno Unified alternative education facility is going up at the site of a former Fresno County juvenile hall. Further east, a 120-unit affordable housing project, a pedestrian trail, and a shopping plaza are also under construction.

Many of the new changes are concentrated near or along Kings Canyon Road – a major Fresno thoroughfare that runs east to west a few blocks south of Highway 180 – that is dotted with strip malls, restaurants, car shops, gas stations, and chain retail stores.

Kings Canyon Road is a critical component of the city’s economic and community growth plan in southeast Fresno. City planners are looking for ways to incentivize development for housing, retail, and public spaces along the corridor, especially with the highly utilized bus routes on the road.

Palm trees line the median at Ventura Avenue looking east from Seventh Avenue toward Kings Canyon Road and southeast Fresno on Thursday, March 2, 2023. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee Credit: CRAIG KOHLRUSS

But some are concerned about how small mom-and-pop businesses will fare with the area’s new commercial developments, such as the new Fancher Creek Town Center. City records also show that Raising Cane’s and a Burlington retail store have filed for permits along the Kings Canyon corridor.

Fresno City District 5 Councilmember Luis Chavez, whose district includes southeast Fresno, hopes all of these changes will help propel a “renaissance” for the area, which he said is “the next big frontier” for the city.

Some community members, however, say the changes couldn’t come quickly enough.

In a Dec. 14 interview with The Bee/Fresnoland, Jose Leon-Barraza, chief financial officer with the Southeast Fresno Community Economic Development Association (SEFCEDA), said the area “has not always been a high priority for our city government.”

“We’re hoping to see that transformation,” he said, “because we have waited too long.”

Taco Bell gets $30,000 to open in southeast Fresno

​The city’s history of incentivizing business in southeast Fresno has come under scrutiny in recent years.

In 2018, Fresno city leaders launched a program aimed at attracting businesses and jobs to the Kings Canyon corridor.

In exchange for five full-time equivalent jobs and a commitment to operate for five years in a designated stretch of the Kings Canyon corridor, businesses could get city development fees waived for things like sidewalks, fire stations, and traffic signals.

Chavez said one goal of the business incentive program was to “chip away” at the vacancy rate along the corridor, which he estimated was around 15% prior to the pandemic. With the pandemic’s toll on southeast Fresno families and businesses, he said, the vacancy rate is between 25% to 30% in some parts of the corridor.

The former Mariscos Las Islitas is closed off and fenced in on E Kings Canyon Road near the Big Fresno Fairgrounds on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. It represents the blight that some of the area has experienced over the years. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

Last fall, the City Council renewed this business incentive program – calling it a “success.”

Yet after five years, only Taco Bell has taken the bait.

In 2019, the city approved over $30,000 in waived fees for the chain to open on Ventura Street.

Chavez said the program was renewed to continue enhancing the corridor with the forthcoming proposed name change to Avenida César Chávez. The Fresno City Council is expected to vote on the name change later this month.

“The last thing we want to do is just rename the boulevard and then not provide resources or investment tools for the community,” he said.

But is another Taco Bell really what city leaders have in mind for attracting business and jobs, or what southeast Fresno needs?

The Taco Bell on Ventura Avenue east of downtown Fresno is a beneficiary of the city’s fee waiver program. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

Other similar projects have been criticized in recent years.

In November 2020, residents and two city council members criticized the decision to build a 7-Eleven convenience store at the northwest corner of Tulare and Cedar avenues, across from Roosevelt High School, where some local residents said they wanted a park. Similarly, in July 2022, when city officials announced a new mixed residential commercial project underway on a vacant lot called Jensen Landing, some criticized the city for bringing another gas station to the area.

It’s not clear how the city is advertising the Kings Canyon incentive program to businesses, or if the program has enough support in place to be successful.

Still, Leon-Barraza said the program is a “positive step” for southeast Fresno. “But by itself,” he said, “it’s not going to make a lot of difference.”

Becerril, of Familias En Acción, said the city should instead give these incentives to residents to “help them become entrepreneurs” to open businesses along the Kings Canyon corridor.

‘Plopping jobs’ doesn’t necessarily help southeast Fresno residents

Tim Bartik, a senior economist and researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said in a February interview with The Bee/Fresnoland that while economic development programs like Fresno’s can bring new amenities to a community, they don’t necessarily move the needle on bringing new jobs to residents.

Few Americans work in the neighborhood they live in, he said, so “just plopping jobs down in a neighborhood doesn’t necessarily help residents of that neighborhood.”

Leon-Barraza said southeast Fresno needs more technical assistance for small business owners, workforce training programs, and good-paying jobs. SEFCEDA is partnering with the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board on a construction training program, for example.

“We believe that if we improve the earning power of residents,” Leon-Barraza said, “guess what? We’ll be able to attract better businesses.”

Leon-Barraza, right, hosts a meeting with southeast Fresno small business owners at SEFCEDA headquarters about the City of Fresno grants for businesses impacted by COVID -19. Courtesy of SEFCEDA

Vandalism, break-ins and blight plague some southeast Fresno businesses

Flora Cortez is the owner of Rosy’s Mexican Food on Kings Canyon Road.

She decided to relocate her business from Hazelnut and Butler avenues to Kings Canyon when she needed a bigger space for her growing customer base, loyal to her costillas con nopal— or ribs with cactus — chilaquiles, and her shrimp enchiladas.

Flora Cortez, owner of Rosy’s Mexican Restaurant on E Kings Canyon Road, prepares lunch for customers on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

The Kings Canyon location, she told The Bee/Fresnoland in a January interview, “is a very good area for business” – especially given the proximity to the Fresno Fairgrounds.

While she loves the location and her clientele – Cortez said the area does have its drawbacks.

She often finds unhoused people sleeping in the front of the restaurant when she opens at 6 a.m., and sometimes has to clean human urine from her storefront.

Rosy’s has also been robbed at least five times.

“Honestly, I close at 3 p.m. because it’s not a safe area,” she said, “it’s kind of dangerous.”

Rosy’s Mexican Restaurant is located near the Big Fresno Fairgrounds on East Kings Canyon Road in Fresno. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

Multiple residents of the area told The Bee/Fresnoland that security and public safety is a concern.

Another big challenge along the corridor, Leon-Barraza said, is vandalism and curb appeal.

“One time,” he said, “I counted 20 broken windows” between First Street and Chestnut Avenue.

Leon-Barraza wants to see more walkable streets and façade improvements along the corridor. He hopes the corridor’s businesses will benefit from the city’s recently announced façade improvement grant program. City planners agree.

Small businesses located in the Asian Village shopping center located at 4903 E Kings Canyon Rd. photographed on Jan. 20, 2023. Jose Leon-Barraza, chief financial officer of the Southeast Fresno Community Economic Development Association, hopes businesses on the Kings Canyon corridor will benefit from the city’s recently announced façade improvement grant program. Melissa Montalvo Fresno Bee/Fresnoland

Fears new commercial project will hurt mom-and-pop immigrant businesses

Some residents fear the new Fancher Creek Town Center will negatively impact small businesses along the Kings Canyon corridor.

One portion of the corridor, between Chestnut to First avenues, is primarily Latino and working class. Meanwhile, the stretch of Kings Canyon that traverses Sunnyside, a county island neighborhood, is surrounded by wealthier enclaves. The new Fancher Creek plaza is closer to the wealthier communities, about four miles east of the 93702 zip code that surrounds the fairgrounds.

With Sprouts and talks of a movie theater, Councilmember Chavez said Fancher Creek is expected to be a regional pull that will attract visitors from nearby cities, like Sanger, and other surrounding communities.

But Becerril, of Familias en Acción, said she should the city invest in more central neighborhoods of southeast Fresno, such as at the site of the long vacant Hanoian’s store near the fairgrounds.

“Why expand out there,” she asked, “when they have us abandoned over here?”

Leon-Barraza said southeast Fresno residents do want some national chains like an IHOP or a Costco, so they don’t always have to go north to River Park.

Still, he said Fancher Creek could pose a challenge for existing small immigrant-owned businesses along the Kings Canyon corridor and fears if the city doesn’t invest more in the corridor, “all the wealth” will head to the shopping center.

“Is this area going to get worse as that regional shopping center gets built?” asked Leon-Barraza. “Those are the things we have to analyze.”

Chavez countered that these fears are overblown.

“When Walmart was expanding about eight, nine years ago, there was a big concern over … ‘hey, they’re gonna price out and push out our small businesses,’” he said. According to Chavez, that didn’t happen.

He estimates that 80% of the small businesses along the corridor are immigrant-owned and cater to niche interests. Asian and Mexican markets, for example, carry specialty and imported spices, chiles, fruits and vegetables, he said.

The Her Supermarket on Kings Canyon (formerly Thaj Yeeb Market) in southeast Fresno. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

Drew Wilson, a supervising planner with the city of Fresno, said in an interview that he doesn’t see the two as competing. Wilson is leading the city’s efforts to create a community-driven 30-year vision plan to guide central southeast Fresno’s growth.

The city’s vision, Wilson said, is to establish “complete neighborhoods” in southeast Fresno, where mom-and-pop businesses provide day-to-day services for the surrounding neighborhood, so that somebody who lives on Third Street and Ventura Street, for example, could walk to a nearby grocery store.

Fancher Creek, on the other hand, could be a more regional draw for services that are not directly available in that neighborhood, such as a movie theater, he said.

‘Experiential’ businesses, digital literacy could help Kings Canyon thrive

Sophia Pagoulatos, the Fresno city planning manager, said the types of businesses that could succeed along the Kings Canyon corridor may be more ”experiential.”

“You go into it because you love those donuts or that coffee, and it’s cool to hang out there.”

But brick-and mortar businesses on the corridor and throughout the city have the challenge of competing with online retail, she added. The city recently announced a short-term partnership with Bitwise to train 1,500 small businesses on digital literacy skills.

Some southeast Fresno entrepreneurs are already embracing the digital age.

Anthony Arreguin, 27, is the owner of AllProCustoms, a custom apparel and embroidery business. He rents a space from the Cali Smoke Shop on Ventura Avenue to print custom t-shirts, sweatshirts and merchandise for local Fresno artists, schools, and other customers.

Anthony Arreguin of All Pro Customs embroidery displays some recent custom hat embroidery work inside the Cali Smoke Shop on Ventura Avenue east of downtown Fresno on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. CRAIGH KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee

He chose to sublease from the shop for the cheap rent — a move he said could also help other small businesses stay afloat. The location doesn’t necessarily draw customers in, though. Instead, he relies heavily on his website and social media presence to grow his clientele.

Arreguin said Kings Canyon small businesses need to embrace the digital age to survive.

“Relying on people who come in (by foot)… won’t get the job done,” he said. “As soon as they learn that, the better off they’ll be.”

Expert weighs in

Whether the city can successfully spur economic growth in working-class areas of southeast Fresno will depend on a multitude of strategies.

Bartik, the economist, said public investments such as technical business training, marketing support for small businesses, incubator training spaces, and grants can go a long way – and can be more valuable than waiving impact fees for major franchises.

Part of the challenge for cities is that economic, workforce, and community development initiatives are often conducted in “silos,” Bartik said, due to their different funding sources and agendas.

He said economic development agencies tend to be “very focused” on what businesses want, while workforce development is focused on unemployed and underemployed people, and community development groups are focused on neighborhood needs.

“Bringing them together,” he said, “requires the right local leaders.”

A couple of empty lots face Ventura Avenue at Seventh Avenue in southeast Fresno on Thursday, March 2, 2023. CRAIGH KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee Credit: Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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