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HOT JOBS, COOL COMMUNITIES, AND FRESNO
Rebecca Ryan thinks Fresno has what it takes to be a "cool" community.
Ryan, founder of Next Generation Consulting, came to Fresno as part of the New Valley InForum speakers series sponsored by the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Fresno State. She speaks and consults regularly with communities on the topic of retaining and attracting a key asset in an "innovation economy:" people.
"Are we building jobs for the innovation economy?" Ryan asked the crowd of about 300 who came to see her presentation, entitled "Hot Jobs, Cool Communities" at the Crest Theatre last week. It's a burning question for a region with double-digit unemployment.
New companies being formed in the innovation economy, like Google, are built on ideas. Great ideas come about when people interact with other people with whom they wouldn't normally intermingle. It follows that cities have to find ways to attract people, she argued.
"Manufacturing jobs have left for China and are never coming back," Ryan said, paraphrasing an anecdote from her father, who worked in a plant bending metal. "What's Fresno's commitment to the innovation economy?" she asked.
It's not enough to create entry-level manufacturing or service sector jobs: the community doesn't make up in revenue what it spends on social services to support new residents. These jobs are important, but growth now is mainly being driven by ideas, not the manufacturing of things, according to Ryan.
Ryan gave numerous examples of places as far flung as Pennsylvania and Singapore that show if the so-called knowledge workers come, economic growth will follow. These workers will migrate to "cool" communities because they are searching for connection to each other and to a community. Ryan theorizes that the further apart workers can be in terms of distance, the more they crave a place to come together.
Turning Fresno into a place where there is both economic and artistic vitality can be done, but the community needs to understand how to position itself to a new generation of workers and speak their language, Ryan advised.
First off, to get people to come, there has to be an intriguing space for people to gather, with vitality measured by after-hours events in these spaces. Downtown Fresno has those spaces, although they are often underutilized, or unnoticed. It was appropriate that her presentation was given in a building that is a symbol of what could be in Fresno: Crest Theater. A marvelous Art Deco interior has been hidden from view for years until Ryan's speech on April 21.
Other Fresno assets can be found in the spaces around Olive Street and the Tower District, which Ryan described as "gritty." Ryan later clarified that places like the Tower District are authentic. The shops aren't homogenized, their placement not pre-meditated, and there isn't that polish that comes in a "planned" area like River Park in North Fresno.
But city leaders have been slow to embrace this idea. At the Transforming Urban Fresno conference presented by One By One Leadership the following day, a panel of four city officials espoused praise for large, planned developments in the city's grittiest areas.
Still, "It may be that Fresno's biggest asset may not be in this zip code," Ryan noted. City leaders will have to realize that workers are going to be attracted to the features of a region, not just the city itself. Hence, cities should build a marketing message around all the features in the area, which in this case would mean Yosemite, for instance.
The audience listened to Ryan, dressed in dark blue suit and white sneakers, say that young workers also measure a community by its social capital. In other words, their migration is influenced by their perception of a community's inclusiveness.
"Diversity is a must-have" for this generation. "Tolerance is no longer enough," Ryan later added.
"People want to be included.Separate but equal doesn't work," she cautioned. It's precisely this notion of inclusion and discussion between different people that helps spark the ideas and innovation that drive economic growth.
Larry Alvarado, a local author attending the event, was intrigued by Ryan's thoughts on the need to bridge generational and cultural differences in order to realize the Valley's social capital:
"We have to allow people to be flexible [in] what they do for the community, and trust that they can be of value to the community," Alvarado said.
Many in the audience felt that a serious discussion about the region's future is already underway in Fresno.
Kelli Furtado, Chief Operating Officer of the Central Valley Business Incubator, said she too senses that there's a momentum building around a downtown revitalization. The community is becoming engaged and coming together on projects of common interest. Furtado said groups like Creative Fresno, Mindhub (an email listserv), Fresno's Leading Young Professionals (FLYP), among others, are helping bring about change.
"Now is the time to make things happen," Furtado said.
Attendees generally agreed that Fresno has the history, the gathering spaces, and the diversity required of a great city. But there are challenges ahead. Ryan cautioned against trying to be something we are not: Fresno will never be New York City. But by attracting and retaining a mix of creative professionals, it could become a dynamic, vibrant city people are proud to call home.
For more information, visit Next Generation Consulting.