Written by David Castellon
After years of heading efforts to advocate for the downtown of Hampton, Virginia, James Cerracchio decided it was time to put his skills to work in a bigger city — and a warmer one.
Though Cerracchio technically started his job Monday as the new CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, his first official act actually occurred on Thursday of last week at the end of the organization’s annual State of Downtown event, held at the recently reopened Downtown Club.
Craig Scharton, who had been the interim CEO over the past four years, delivered the main speech.
The partnership is funded by downtown property owners and works to promote and advocate for it.
At the end of the event, Cerracchio was asked to come to the podium to deliver his own speech, essentially introducing himself to the business people, politicians, government employees and others with whom he’ll be working.
“Feel free to call me ‘Jimmy’ whenever you see me,” he told the crowd of more than 200. “We drove 3,000 miles across the country just last weekend. So I’m extra happy to be here,” he said. “We had three dogs with us the whole time and a friend and my mom helping us, so it was kind of crazy.”
A musician with a fine arts degree, Cerracchio said he started his career promoting downtowns in his native Phoenix, where a co-worker from Fresno first told him what a great place it is and he should one day live there.
“I figured, yeah right. It’s never going to happen.”
His career took him to working to support the downtown area in Tempe and later to becoming executive director of the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership.
Cerracchio said he was proud of helping get downtown Phoenix “booming” and helping Tempe, which was in the midst of the Great Recession when he got there.
“Over five years there, we got downtown Tempe turned around. We got our office vacancy [rate] down to about 4 percent, retail vacancy down to the single digits.”
He said he went to Hampton because he was ready to be in charge, and in his time there “We changed zoning, we positioned the city for great growth. They’re on the verge of their first major development in over 20 years.
“But after that, I got sick of the snow and cold weather, so now I’m here,” he said, adding that he also was ready to work in a bigger downtown, like when he was in Phoenix.
As for why he applied for the job in Fresno, the warmer winters certainly played a part in that decision.
“Actually, the culture is what sounded best about it to me — ArtHop and a mural program, a live music scene starting. Things like that are what caught my eye, originally,” Cerracchio said. “I can’t wait to see my first [ArtHop]. From what I’ve heard, it’s growing like crazy.”
He also noted the emerging nightlife and craft breweries in downtown, adding, “You have tech companies, like Bitwise doing great things turning buildings around, like super quick. What, you’re on your third building, right,” he asked Bitwise’s co-CEOs in the audience.
Still, there are problems downtown that need to be addressed, Cerracchio said.
“I’ve heard from lots of people about challenges. Even the day I moved in, my landlord was going off to me about parking in downtown — and that’s why he never parks downtown, and parking meters are horrible.
“I’ve heard about homeless challenges and [business] vacancy challenges. Those are things we deal with in the downtown world. Cities across the country have the same problems. We have answers. We have ways to work together to solve these things,” Cerrachio told the audience.
One possible quick fix for parking meter complaints could be the installation of smart meters that send people messages to their cell phones that their time is about to run out and allow those people to put more money through their phones without having to leave the businesses they’re at to do it, he said.
In addition, it’s possible to develop a system in which people living downtown could use metered parking spaces for free after regular business hours, though more discussion on downtown’s parking problems is needed, Cerracchio added.
As for his priorities in his new job, he said, “First thing I really want to get going is a business-development program that will focus on providing information for businesses looking to develop downtown, as well as businesses that are already here, to retain them — whether it’s finding the best space for their needs or connecting them to resources to help, such as developing business plans.
“From my understanding of the organization so far, there is a little bit of that, but not a lot.”
Cerracchio said in an interview after his speech that he also wants the partnership to develop a comprehensive database of what properties are available and find ways to best communicate this data to people who might be interested in buying or leasing those spaces.
In addition, “We need to have somebody in the organization focused on communicating with the press and getting information on things that are happening to the merchants and the public.”
Cerracchio said he has heard there are problems using high-speed Internet on Fulton
Street, and if it’s true it needs to be fixed, as connectivity problems could prompt some business operators not to locate there.
As for larger issues that may require much more work and time to address, Cerracchio noted he is still learning about downtown, and it may take a month or two to discover those other issues.
“But at first glance, I would say homelessness would be a big issue to focus on and making sure people are being provided the best services to help them. But how do we minimize the impact to tourists, residents who are using downtown, to keep them from wanting to be here?”
Whatever the issues, though, the new CEO said Fresno has some advantages to help address them.
He said the people he has met downtown so far seem to love it and think it’s cool, and the people advocating for the downtown area are passionate about it.
“You guys are the piece that will make this happen. Just keep pushing, keep showing that passion, and this city will just explode. I’m positive about this happening.”
Cerracchio finished his speech by inviting members of the audience to meet with him to discuss what has worked and hasn’t worked downtown and offer their ideas.
As for Scharton, though he applied for the CEO job, he was passed over. After that, he said, he and his superiors mutually agreed that he should leave, and his last day was on Tuesday.
“I think it was time to move on,” Scharton said in an interview. “I think it was time for some fresh blood.”
He added that he was glad to have seen from start to end the conversion of the Fulton Street Mall from a pedestrian shopping area back to a street.
For now, Scharton said he will work on his campaign to be elected to the Fresno City Council’s District 3 seat currently held by Oliver Baines, who will term out.
The district includes downtown — where Scharton lives — west Fresno and part of the Tower District.
But win or lose, Scharton will need a job. He recently launched his own business as a revitalization and business consultant who plans to work with other downtowns, as well as working privately for property and business owners here.