Fresno's Business 'Lions' Forge Civic Muscle

Fresno, Calif., is not a town known for wealth, elegance or great urban planning. It's in an area of California's Central Valley known for some of America's most concentrated poverty. It has many low-wage industries, few high-wage ones.

And not a great history of honest public dealing: A massive FBI sting in the 1990s revealed how developers were buying up farmland, paying off council members to have it rezoned for housing, then constructing cheap units at an enormous profit. Sixteen area developers and Fresno City Council members were convicted in the case.

But there's a startling different story -- the Fresno Business Council, formed in 1993 not for narrow causes (such as holding down corporate tax rates) but rather to seek solutions such as offsetting a juvenile crime wave and correcting dropping economic and social indicators.

It's not uncommon around the country for senior business leaders to step into the civic sector and push for reforms in the face of crises. In the words of Deborah Nankivell, a Minnesota transplant who's been the Fresno Business Council's CEO for two decades.

"Who will ensure that government, schools and neighborhoods are high-functioning if those who often have the most developed skills and the greatest influence stay out of the public and political realms? The responsibilities of citizenship demand that all contribute at their highest level of impact."

The big challenge in an era of global economic competition and distractions is to keep top business leaders focused on community. It's made even tougher by the broad tendency to insert Republican and Democratic partisanship into local elections.

But in a forthcoming book, "America's Sacred Space," Nankivell praises the leadership core of Fresno's Business Council as steadfast "lions" who have "worked hard to keep our focus on the community and prevented distractions by the self or single interests of members, politicians or funders." The practice, she argues, has allowed the organization to remain "dynamic, entrepreneurial and about stewardship."

An early focus was land use. To offset Fresno's dominant pattern of physically separated pockets of rich and poor -- plus a sprawl that triggers unaffordable infrastructure building and maintenance costs -- the Business Council helped to create an unusual alliance. It included the Farm Bureau and Building Industry Association as well as local conservation advocates, to advocate a "Landscape of Choice" smart-growth formula. Implementation was slow, but recently the City Council incorporated smart-growth principles in its General Plan update. One byproduct: equity advocates have spent hours coaching low-income residents on smart-growth principles and the role they could play in improving their neighborhoods.

The lesson learned, says Nankivell: How vital it is that "stewards" -- people "working together to achieve the greatest, long-term benefit for the community as a whole" -- actually craft solutions that prevent special interests from "distorting policies to achieve their narrow, short-term goals."

To "up the game" for long-term transformation, the Business Council created a New Economy Task Force to increase the region's per capita income at least to the California average, based on a report developed by Silicon Valley-based Collaborative Economics. Pillars of the plan: area-wide broadband coverage, an increase in knowledge workers, a shift to an innovation culture (including a new industry cluster on water technology), and smart growth and transportation. Overall, 26 projects and initiatives for the city and region have been launched, with job creation a major focus.

At each step, the Business Council and its "lions" have focused on outreach to a range of citizen, neighborhood and business groups, statewide alliances focused on regional policymaking, and research institutions such as the Great Valley Center.

The skeptic can ask: Couldn't and shouldn't local government line up all the policies that need consideration? And Nankivell replies: The table has to be prepared outside -- local governments are limited by jurisdiction and formal authority, see their debates distorted by an "increasingly mean-spirited press," and are constantly pressured by single interests.

Instead, she argues passionately for citizen-generated policymaking -- "the sacred space in a democracy," as she calls it, "where labels, history, socioeconomics, gender and race are irrelevant. This is the space where we the people come together as equals to govern ourselves and where leaders emerge, not because of position but because others choose to follow them."

In an era of ugly "face-off" national and increasingly local politics, divisions inflamed by ideology-based national television channels, with partisan divides ever deeper in Washington and state capitals, the idea of allowing and respecting "sacred space" for democratic debate and problem-solving in our communities may seem quaintly out of date.

But the model of Fresno's public-spirited "lions" and their allies is reminiscent of the strength and commitment that created and have sustained open, strong American democracy for generations. We fail to embrace it again at our peril.

Neal Peirce's email address is

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