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Can Fresno bridge its economic divide?

Fresno is one of the most economically distressed and unequal regions in California.
Credit: Cal Matters

CALIFORNIA, USA — CalMatters originally published this story.

When Monita Porter moved from Atlanta to Fresno to help the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce run a program investing in Black-owned businesses, many in the community worried there wouldn't be enough Black entrepreneurs and business owners in Fresno to participate.

New to the Central Valley, Porter wanted to prioritize listening to community members. But she treated those particular concerns with a healthy dose of skepticism —  that paid off.

More than 80 entrepreneurs and business owners applied to be in the program's first cohort – and the program has grown since.  

"You're telling me there's not enough?" Porter said, laughing.

The joint project by the Black Chamber and the Fresno DRIVE initiative is a small-business incubator called "Betting Big on Small Black Businesses," launched in 2021. Aspiring entrepreneurs trying to create everything from homemade pet treats to market research companies receive stipends, mentorship, peer support, business plan development, and professional workshops during the three-month course. 

Most importantly, organizers say, each program participant gets help securing more capital for their start-up idea or existing business. So far, the chamber has distributed $150,000 from private grants and state and federal funding to assist 28 participants with their companies, even to cover necessities like rent.

The Betting Big initiative is one of the dozens of community investment and economic revitalization efforts in the Fresno DRIVE program, a public-private initiative designed to engineer a stronger, more equitable financial future for Fresno, once called California's poorest major city. 

(DRIVE stands for Developing the Region's Inclusive and Vibrant Economy.) 

Neglected equity

About three years into the DRIVE's 10-year plan, leaders say many initiatives are beginning to show progress. Black entrepreneurs are starting businesses, for instance. More residents of historically neglected neighborhoods are organizing and serving on local planning committees. And more employers are learning to incorporate inclusive hiring practices and support for existing employees.

But Ashley Swearengin, CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, which sponsors the DRIVE, said it is still far from achieving structural and "cultural" change. This kind affords better economic opportunities to people long shut out of the Central Valley's rapid growth.

"Just because a job gets added in Fresno doesn't mean that an under-resourced community or community of color is going to necessarily know about, be prepared for, or have access to that economic opportunity," said Swearengin, Fresno's former mayor. "We must consider all these things because we've neglected inclusion and equity in our community." 

The Central Valley Community Foundation launched the Fresno DRIVE in the summer of 2019 to raise and invest $4.2 billion in collaboration with 150 other organizations. 

The DRIVE would target such areas as education, downtown revitalization, job training, and investment in entrepreneurs of color, drawing funding from a mix of state, federal, and private grants.

More than a dozen DRIVE initiatives have been launched so far. Some, like the Betting Big initiative, focus on wealth creation and business support. In contrast, others will support new mothers and infants, aspiring pilots, technology students, or paid interns at local companies. Finally, some will target training and education for future tech jobs in the agriculture and food industries.

"We have tracked about $300 million that has been invested thus far across all our partners who are implementers of DRIVE," said Central Valley Community Foundation spokesperson, Taylor Kimber. "Of the $4 billion, we believe roughly two-thirds will be from existing or new public sources, and the balance split between philanthropic and private investment."

Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Fresno in 2019 and announced $10 million in state funds would go to one DRIVE initiative, a collaboration of four Fresno-area school districts and local colleges trying to raise college graduation rates. 

Recently, Newsom allocated $250 million toward Fresno's downtown redevelopment plan, including housing, parking, parks, sewer, and water infrastructure.

"A Tale of two states"

Fresno has forged a post-pandemic solid recovery. However, labor leaders warn that most of its new jobs are in such low-wage sectors as transportation, retail, warehousing, or hospitality. From 2019 through 2022, the Central Valley experienced the second-highest growth in low-wage jobs in the state, behind the Inland Empire, the Public Policy Institute of California found.

Fresno is one of the most economically distressed and unequal regions in California. More than 20% of Fresno County residents live below the federal poverty line, almost double the percentage for California and the United States.

Fresno is a majority-minority city, with half the population identifying as Latino or Hispanic. According to the Healthy Fresno County Community Dashboard, several census tracts in Fresno County and the city show some of the nation's highest economic needs and poorest health outcomes. West Fresno denizens live 20 fewer years than residents in wealthier zip codes, a 2012 Fresno State study said.

The city also has a history of racist zoning, discriminatory home lending, and inequality. The Atlantic 2018 traced Fresno's "ugly divide" in articles linking past segregation to today's poverty among Black and Latino residents.

More than half of West Fresno residents lived below poverty in 2020. Today the median household income in West Fresno is $34,147, about half the median income of the rest of the city and significantly lower than the state's median of $84,097.

Fresno is an example of California's "tale of two states," said Don Howard, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, one of the DRIVE's funders.

"Those are communities that have a high level of growth and a lot of inequity," Howard said, adding that the foundation "can invest more to help those communities create economies that work for everybody and that are economically just and racially just."

We are starting small, 'betting big.

The Irvine Foundation awarded the Central Valley Community Foundation a $15 million grant to launch Fresno DRIVE. Kimber said about 90% of the grant money went to community partners, and nearly all funds have been exhausted. (The foundation also is a CalMatters funder.)

DRIVE leaders have promised to make racial equity and community-oriented approaches the cornerstone of their work. Swearengin, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for state controller in 2014, said her perspective has changed since she served as Fresno's mayor from 2009-2017. 

"A lot of people are impacted by racial exclusion, and that's the rallying cry for DRIVE," she said. "We have to grow the economy, no doubt, and diversify the economy. There's more work to ensure our existing community benefits from those jobs."

The Fresno DRIVE focuses on Black entrepreneurs and other individuals of color from historically disadvantaged communities.

The first Betting Big training sessions in 2021 and 2022 prioritized Black men and women. The program has since expanded to include other Fresno-area communities of color in subsequent cohorts. 

The program has 73 graduates and helped at least 17 obtain business licenses.

Alexis Newlin said the Betting Big Initiative gave her support, mentorship, and funds to grow her outdoor tourism business, Authentic Adventures Central CA,

"It was sometimes like drinking out of a fire hose; there was so much information," Newlin said. 

Belonging in business

Newlin leads individual and group tours through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks, as well as kayak trips along the Central Coast, visits to a sunflower farm in Yolo County, and local food tours through Fresno and Clovis. In addition, as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, she often arranges trips and outdoor activities for children and adults with disabilities.

Newlin said the chamber was an invaluable resource she could turn to for advice or help. And program leaders pushed her to promote her business. At first, she was apprehensive about pitching her company to a crowd. But she worked with program mentors and participated in a business pitch competition in Sacramento, winning $5,000.

"If you want to start a business and you don't know where to start, and you just need someone to give you some tools to get started, Betting Big all the way," Newlin said.

Porter said each Betting Big cohort follows a core curriculum designed for minority-owned businesses but also focuses on different topics or business resources that match participants' needs and interests. For example, while Newlin found value in the program's expertise and resources, the cohort of Black men trained on mastering business language and terminology for networking or pitching their businesses. 

"They have this understanding that they are pushed out of certain rooms," Porter said of the men. "They want to get educated so they don't feel like they don't belong."

Ag jobs of  the future

Another DRIVE focus showing progress involves preparing tomorrow's farmers and agricultural workers for technological advances and training current farmworkers for better-paying jobs.

A DRIVE initiative called the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation Coalition (or F3) received a $65 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration's Build Back Better Regional Challenge in September 2022. It will train workers in skills they need for tech jobs in agriculture, help small farmers access technology and strengthen the local food system.

The state also contributed $15 million to the Agrifood Technology and Engineering Collaborative (or AgTEC), a DRIVE program that will help Central Valley community colleges train 8,400 future agricultural workers in the science and technology they'll need to continue to innovate.

"One of the challenges is we have an aging workforce, and we are trying to develop programs that encourage younger generations to seek job opportunities in ag technology," said Reza Ehsani, an engineering professor at UC Merced. "We want them to get excited, to show them that agriculture could be technologically savvy."

The effort has drawn other partners and funding.

Many California equipment companies at the forefront of ag tech innovation are struggling to recruit Central Valley workers with the essential science, math, and technology backgrounds, said Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for the Western Growers Association.

He said internships can go only so far: "We think real-world experience is important."  

The Western Growers Association also received a $750,000 grant from the state's agriculture department to help develop ag tech training curriculum at community colleges and universities across California. The association connects its members to professors like Terry Brase, director of the Farm of the Future program at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, to ensure students are prepared to work on the same equipment agribusinesses use.

Science of Agriculture

Meanwhile, a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture funds related efforts at the two Central Valley colleges, the West Hills and Ehsani's program at UC Merced. It will support the colleges' creation of "AgSTEM" kits (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for more than 500 elementary, middle, and high school students. 

Eventually, those kits will be in classrooms or used for field trips. Fourth graders, for instance, will test out soil moisture sensors on classroom plants, and high school students will learn how to manage water flow and pressure with an irrigation simulator.

"You know, agriculture is all about science," said Brase. "There's all those fundamentals that are important."

The idea, experts said, is that those students will consider agriculture as a possible STEM career path and come better prepared for rigorous community college classes that professors like Brase and Ehsani are developing to meet the local workforce needs.

The professors said they hope students get well-paid jobs in the Central Valley region where they grew up or attended college, like farm technician Adrian Jenkins. He moved to the Central Valley from Florida to play football at Reedley College but stayed to study agriculture.

After taking classes at West Hills, Jenkins joined its staff as a farm technician, general laborer, and academic advisor, assisting with STEM programs and "ag camp" for local students. He has since left the college for a new job using his ag tech experience.

"Agriculture gained my interest," Jenkins said in March. "It's a useful occupation, changing the world." 

Drive initiatives:

  • Betting Big on Small Businesses
  • Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3)
  • Fresno's Impact Economy
  • Next Gen Aviation
  • Wealth Creation
  • Community Justice Network
  • K-16 Collaborative
  • Pre-Conception to Five
  • UCSF Fresno School of Medicine
  • Upskilling
  • Civic Infrastructure
  • Downtown 2.0
  • Fresno's Opportunity Corridor
  • Permanent Affordable Housing

Editor's note: The James Irvine Foundation funds the Central Valley Community Foundation's Fresno DRIVE initiative and supports CalMatters.  

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