Officials aim to unleash economic potential of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley

Fulton Mail in Downtown Fresno. Photograph courtesy chris.jackson on Flickr.
Fulton Mail in Downtown Fresno. Photograph courtesy chris.jackson on Flickr.

Local leaders across California’s San Joaquin Valley are working together to bring economic growth to the entire region.

Officials from fourteen different municipalities in California’s San Joaquin Valley, along with California State University – Fresno, the California Central Valley Economic Development Corporation and the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council have partnered to create Smart Valley Places, a coalition working to transform the Valley from one of the most economically challenged and underserved areas of the country into a thriving place to live, work and play.

“It’s almost as if they’ve found the balance,” said John Lehn, President and CEO of the Kings County Economic Development Corporation, part of the Smart Valley Places group. “Let’s focus on the things we do have in common. That has resulted in both state and federal officials really opening their eyes to the cooperation that’s happened in the Central Valley.”

The centerpiece of Smart Valley Places’ work is a single integrated plan for regional growth that will guide the San Joaquin Valley for the next 20 years and even beyond. The plan will span eight counties and over a dozen cities to preserve agricultural land, focus development near economic centers and address local and regional mass transit, energy and housing issues. Smart Valley Places projects vary across the region, from transit-oriented development in Tulare, to downtown revitalization in Hanford, all fitting into a “single integrated plan for regional growth.”

Smart Valley Places has already gathered a diverse array of support among residents, area non-profit organizations and the San Joaquin Valley’s business community. “Businesses pretty well accept planning as long as it make sense, as long as there’s some foundation in reason,” Lehn said.

One of the participating cities is the City of Fresno. Fresno is the largest city involved in the project and local officials have already identified smarter growth as a key economic tool. In 2012 Fresno conducted a study comparing different development scenarios and found smart growth development would generate 45% higher revenue per acre and require 9% less spending on ongoing city services like police and fire coverage. The Fresno study was one of several included in Smart Growth America’s recent Building Better Budgets report that showed how cities can save taxpayer money by adopting smart growth strategies versus conventional suburban development.

This potential for economic development and public savings has prompted Fresno’s Mayor Ashley Swearengin to champion an ambitious general plan update that aims for 45% of new growth to be in the form of cost-efficient infill development.

“Smart Valley Places has provided a strong foundation for our efforts to update the City of Fresno’s General Plan,” Mayor Swearengin said. “The most effective smart growth strategy Fresno has found and deployed is deep engagement of our community in all its diversity using reliable data and analyses, and spending the time to fully apprise the community of Smart Growth facts.”

Fresno’s economic development efforts will go even farther because of the Smart Valley Places partnership. Cooperating with nearby cities and counties brings benefits to everyone, and it’s being made possible in part by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities. A grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has made Smart Valley Places possible. That one grant is helping 14 cities across 8 counties and an entire region grow in more economically vibrant ways.