Trying to connect the dots

    • By: Al Smith: Chamber President/CEO

This month’s Connect centers largely on our valley’s leisure industry – a business category that does not get the recognition it actually deserves.  Obviously, agriculture is number one. However the second most important infusion into our economy comes from conventions and tourism – people coming to or through our community spending money in hotels, restaurants, attractions and retail…

According to the 2011 Runyon Report, travel brought to Fresno 1.2 billion dollars from people who visited, creating over 12,000 jobs. That is a lot of impact.

So how does this information relate to, “connecting the dots?

There has been a lot of public discussion regarding downtown revitalization; the opening of a mall; urban sprawl; high speed rail and bus rapid transit.  Consider that these topics might be helpful in increasing our performance in travel.

It wasn’t too many years ago that the convention business in our city was robust. Because of Fresno’s mid-state location, our reasonable lodging costs and an attractive convention center, we were a leading destination for the convening of mid-size regional organizations.  Then, the decline of activities in our downtown, along with increased competition from cities like San Jose, Anaheim, etc., saw local convention activity wane.

Conventions and travel are quick infusions, but you can’t invite 5,000 people to your city and not have suitable hotels, assorted restaurants, shopping – all within an acceptable level of convenience.

When the sun goes down, where does the visitor go?

So, my dots are – adequate meeting facilities – a thriving downtown – a modern and fast transportation system. All of this lies on top of our biggest asset, the friendly attitude of the citizens of this city.

Years ago I remember going to a convention in Buffalo, New York.  As I walked down the street in my convention garb I was surprised to hear residents, without provocation, saying “Thanks for coming to our city!” This may have been years ago, but I still remember and think fondly of the people and that place.

Imagine conventioneers boarding a high-speed train in San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento; getting off at a modern train terminal located next to a downtown corridor made up of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, four-star hotel accommodations; speedy bus service (BRT) that whisks people to other parts of our city for dining and shopping or to a major concert at the Save Mart Center.

Is this just crazy wishful thinking?

Not really – most are either already in play or within reach.  We have adequate convention facilities.  The Save Mart Center has become one of the most successful concert venues on the west coast. The push for a revitalized downtown is moving forward with the alteration of Fulton Street and the breathing of new life from private investment into historic multi-storied buildings that reflect our glorious past.   Downtown lofts, apartments and restaurants have seen increased activity. Modern public transportation similar to light rail or Metro links is on the boards for implementation.

If we have renewed emphasis on travel, a simple 3% increase of revenue would bring 36 million dollars annually and additional jobs. Multiply that turn-over-ratio seven times and see what you get.

So as I sit here imagining and trying to connect dots, what keeps rattling in my brain are the famous words of our old friend, George Bernard Shaw, “Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

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