PROJECTStrong Cities, Strong Communities

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  • Fresno, California

    Strong Cities, Strong Communities City Profile 

    Janae Ladet and Joseph Schilling
    May 2018

    Local Dynamics and Program Overview  

    As the largest city and fastest-growing region in California’s Central Valley, Fresno and its rapid expansion presented Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) a unique set of socioeconomic challenges. Fresno has big-city problems, such as crime, high poverty, and low educational attainment, but the city is one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions. Around the launch of SC2, more than 40 percent of residents lived in extremely low–income neighborhoods, and the unemployment rate was above 14 percent. In 2010, according to census data, the city’s population was 494,665, approximately 50 percent of whom were of Hispanic descent.

    Strong Cities, Strong Communities implementation began in September 2012 after an involved planning and consultation period. The federal assessment team found a willing partner in Ashley Swearengin, Fresno’s mayor from 2009 to 2017, who wanted to bring more resources and expertise to a city that federal and state policymakers often neglected. Early in her tenure, Swearengin commissioned a report led by California State University, Fresno, that identified long-term structural unemployment, substantially less tax revenue compared with other California cities, and large pockets of underinvestment in the city’s neighborhoods. Swearengin focused on four priorities: increasing the number of jobs and improving education, creating safe and high-quality neighborhoods, providing effective and responsive government, and garnering regional leadership.

    Despite its challenges, Fresno’s regional assets include California State University, Fresno, and a strong agricultural sector that employs nearly 20 percent of the workforce and provides more than $3.5 billion to the local economy (Abt Associates 2014). Fresno also has several hospitals that make up a medical center. In 2002, Fresno was one of seven localities to be designated a federal Empowerment Zone and is one of the largest Enterprise Zones (in terms of business tax credits) in California. The city also has a robust commercial shipping industry, and the nation’s largest parcel carriers—FedEx, UPS, and DHL—operate from Fresno.

    The mayor assigned her chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, and government affairs manager to work with SC2 teams to ensure close coordination with city staff and close alignment with the city’s priorities and goals. Fresno is a strong mayoral city, like many of the SC2 cohort cities, which allowed for more autonomy and flexibility during SC2 implementation. The team lead was deeply connected and engaged city staff to help interagency collaboration. The two on-site team members worked out of the mayor’s office. Additionally, there was an on-site meeting in April 2012 to discuss program implementation and plan for the remainder of the pilot.

    US Environmental Protection Agency region 9 project manager Scott Stollman led the Community Solutions Team (CST) that was supported by 18 federal employees from 12 agencies, including the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Transportation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the General Services Administration (Abt Associates 2014). The team included one full-time employee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Mayor Swearengin and the Fresno CST identified three areas for the federal agencies to focus their technical assistance and resources: downtown revitalization, transportation, and economic development and innovation. These priorities evolved into a work plan that included a portfolio of projects, workshops, consultations, grants, and the like within 10 general initiatives: downtown revitalization, business development, economic development and innovation, high-speed rail, transportation, land-use planning, neighborhood revitalization and housing, resource management, workforce development and adult education, and homelessness.1 Fresno’s two SC2 fellows were assigned to the Downtown Fresno Partnership, a city-chartered business improvement entity, to focus on the revitalization of downtown Fresno’s Fulton Street Mall.

    “The Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative is making a real impact as Fresno moves forward on our economic development and community revitalization vision,” said former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin. “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.”2

    Projects and Activities

    Working with the mayor, city officials, and their partners, the Fresno CST and SC2 fellows engaged in various activities to improve local and federal government relationships; develop and strengthen new cross-sector, cross-agency partnerships; enhance local government capacities; and catalyze opportunities for regional and local economic growth. These federal-local collaborations involved trainings, workshops, consultations, convenings, and policy and development projects often supported with federal technical assistance and resources.

    The Fresno CSTs often helped city officials navigate the complexities of federal programs, rules, and grants, and they shared their planning and policy expertise to enhance and expand current city efforts. The SC2 fellows brought new research, urban planning, and communications and marketing capacities to the city’s and the Downtown Fresno Partnership’s campaign to revitalize the distressed Fulton Street Mall. Below, we highlight a few projects and products from these collaborations.

    • Downtown neighborhood community plan and the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan. The Fresno CST convened and coordinated with federal and state agencies to provide guidance to the city as it revised its local land-use plans and supported the city in its implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency contract grant report’s recommendations to help the city and local anchor institutions advance revitalization goals. The plan included feedback from more than 1,000 residents and is connected to the 2013 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery application for the Fulton Mall Reconstruction Project (City of Fresno, n.d.). The plan explores ways to connect the Mariposa Corridor and the historic Fulton Mall, Main Street, and the high-speed rail system (City of Fresno 2016).
    • IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge. Fresno was selected for the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, in which IBM employees provide pro bono expertise. Strong Cities, Strong Communities worked with the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Energy to provide technical assistance in developing the IBM team’s work plan. An international team of six IBM Smarter Cities Challenge fellows recommended solutions to key economic development issues in Fresno, many of which involve the growth of agriculture technology. The city received a $400,000 grant and was chosen in part because of its geographic location and potential.3
    • Award of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to redevelop the Mariposa Plaza Corridor. The SC2 team recommended the city pursue a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Our Town, to redevelop the Mariposa Plaza Corridor. Fresno was awarded a $150,000 grant to work on the redesign to include public arts and cultural events.
    • Award of investment assistant for Economic Development Assistance grant. The SC2 team provided technical assistance for the city to receive a $95,000 grant to develop and expand the food processing center.
    • Wells Fargo bank and food systems economic development. The SC2 team helped Wells Fargo strategize on economic development though food systems. They created three committees to support this work: a public market committee, an urban farm–community garden committee, and a small business–kitchen incubator committee.
    • Campaign to revitalize Fulton Street Mall. This was a major project for the SC2 fellows and included revitalizing Fulton Mall and engaging residents in revitalizing a community gathering place in Mariposa Plaza. The mayor needed help initiating funding for this $20 million project. Initially, the mall struggled to get foot traffic, so the management team switched the approach of a destination business with various events. Creating the Fulton Street Mall helped develop the professional and strategic and project-related goals. A follow-up report highlighted best practices in converting pedestrian malls into main streets, created a downtown vacant property database, and coordinated the “I Believe in Downtown Fresno” campaign.
    • Regional efforts. The SC2 team, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Department of Energy, and the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is strengthening connections to the San Joaquin Valley regional economy. The city received a $95,000 Economic Development Administration grant to support regional connections by examining opportunities in the food sector and innovations to support the agricultural economy (HUD 2014).
    • Transportation coordination and high-speed rail. The SC2 team increased communication between representatives from the Federal Rail Administration, the California High Speed Rail Authority, the US Department of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Authority. The team gathered more than 30 stakeholders and provided technical assistance for high-speed rail planning. As a result of this coordination, engagement, and technical assistance, Fresno made progress in placing the high-speed rail station near Fulton Mall and expanding the rail connection to an 18-square-block grid (HUD 2014).
    • German Marshall Fund SC2 boot camp. The SC2 boot camp in Fresno gathered city and community leaders to discuss economic development strategies. The boot camp consisted of two days of workshops and included moderators for PolicyLink, the California Downtown Association, local business improvement districts, and universities.4 The workshops within the boot camps had four panel sessions: engaging anchor institutions in downtown Fresno, exploring the role of downtown business improvement districts, creative placemaking, and philanthropic partnerships (GMF 2013). The boot camps allowed participants to discuss such topics as anchor institutions, philanthropy, and downtown revitalization (Johns Hopkins, n.d.). The boot camp was organized in partnership with the Surdna Foundation. 

    Box 1

    Reports and Media


    1. “Summary: SC2-Fresno Community Solution Team Year 2 Work Plan,” accessed May 17, 2018.

    2. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Obama Administration Establishes White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities,” news release, March 15, 2012.

    3. Colin Wood, “Smarter Cities’ Advice to Transform Fresno, Calif.,” Government Technology, May 16, 2013.

    4. “GMF Hosts First Strong Cities, Strong Communities Bootcamp in Fresno, CA,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, accessed March 23, 2018.


    Abt Associates. 2014. Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot: Final Report. Washington, DC: Abt Associates.

    City of Fresno. 2016. Fulton Corridor Specific Plan. Fresno, CA: City of Fresno.

    ———. n.d. TIGER 2013 Application for the Fulton Mall Reconstruction Project. Fresno, CA: City of Fresno.

    GMF (German Marshall Fund of the United States). 2013. “Strong Cities, Strong Communities Bootcamp: Urban and Regional Policy Program, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Final Report—Fresno, California.” Washington, DC: GMF.

    HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development). 2014. “White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Accomplishments in Fresno, CA.” Washington, DC: HUD.

    Johns Hopkins (Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative). n.d. Federal-Local Partnerships and Playbook. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

    Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
    Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
    States California
    Cities Fresno, CA