A federal effort to cut red tape and better use existing resources to help economically struggling cities like Fresno is beginning to pay off, according to Obama administration officials.
In a statement issued Thursday, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz praised the "Strong Cities, Strong Communities" (SC2) program for supporting communities like Fresno.
At a time when communities must accomplish more with every dollar of investment, SC2’s work in its first few years has already enabled communities to maximize the impact of more than $345 million in existing federal funds.
In the case of Fresno, Donovan and Muñoz used the example of SC2 staff who helped push for the last minute rerouting of a planned bus line to better serve the Fulton Mall as evidence of the success of the effort. According to the program's annual report, without the involvement of the SC2 team, the city's planned $48 million Bus Rapid Transit route would have bypassed the mall, which has emerged as the centerpiece of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's downtown renewal plans. It would have also failed to connect with the city's future high speed rail station.
Through a coordinated effort among the mayor’s office, the SC2 team, and multiple federal agencies, including EPA, DOT and HUD, the BRT lines were realigned to be within a block of the center of downtown and less than a half mile from the high-speed rail station site. The new location will complement and reinforce the city’s downtown revitalization activities and better leverage existing federal investments in Fresno.
Donovan and Muñoz said the new location would help create a "a vibrant downtown transit-corridor." According to a related report by the Federal Highway Administration's Eric Eidlin:
Had the SC2 team not initiated coordination when it did, the costs of making changes to the BRT alignment at a later date would have been high and the city would have missed a tremendous opportunity to leverage a $48 million investment—the largest transit investment in Fresno's history—to help revitalize key districts of its downtown.
Eidlin says that city staff had previously planned a route for the federally funded bus line that bypassed the Fulton Mall because at the time the area was economically struggling. The new route will run one half mile further to the west to better stimulate Fulton corridor business activity and support transit oriented development.
The White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities is intended to boost local economies by deploying teams of federal officials from different agencies to seven struggling U.S. cities. They include Fresno, Detroit, Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans, Youngstown, OH, and Chester, PA. The teams offer technical expertise and assistance to local officials, ranging from energy to transportation.
In addition to rerouting the planned bus line, the EPA funded a study on how the city could leverage investment downtown, and the U.S. Department of Transportation provided the city with $1 million to help support environmental studies for the city's Fulton Mall project.
The SC2 report also details federal efforts to support revitalization efforts in neighborhoods throughout the city, including El Dorado Park near Fresno State and in Southwest Fresno. It also cites support from the USDA and the Department of Energy in the city's effort to attract "value added" food manufacturing jobs, and the extension of broadband internet in the city.
In a written statement included in the SC2 report, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin praised the program:
“The Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative is making a real impact as Fresno moves forward on our economic development and community revitalization vision. The SC2 team has been a terrific partner in contributing to the development of ‘ground-up’ solutions tailored to our needs, refining lasting partnerships with key local and regional stakeholders, and working to remove roadblocks accompanying federal programs that directly affect our city.”