Morgan Doizaki looks out of the balcony of the Bing Kong Association building in Chinatown. Once the local headquarters of the Chinese gang that was the building’s namesake, today it’s a storage facility for Central Fish Co. The Doizakis purchased the building in the late 2000s. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz

published on September 30, 2019 - 1:26 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

Morgan Doizaki was introduced to Fresno’s Chinatown at age 10, when he would work at Central Fish Co. for his uncle, Akira Yokomi, during his holidays.

Previously interned with his family during World War II, Yokomi founded Central Fish in 1950, when it opened for business in Nippon Building No. 1. In 1979, he relocated to a new spot, but stayed in the Chinatown district, close to the Buddhist temple where the Japanese-American community congregated, stopping in for a bite or to shop after services. Regardless of background, Yokomi remained loyal to his extended family in Chinatown until he was murdered in the store in 1996.

In 2003, Doizaki moved to Fresno to take over the declining business and restored it to success. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for many of his neighbors, especially as streets and entryways have been choked off to accommodate construction of the high-speed rail. The roadblocks, Doizaki explained, have laid waste to the community.

“It killed Chinatown,” he said. “It looks like a border wall separating us where the red line originally was, where the tracks are. Basically, don’t come on the other side — and now we’re faced with the same situation.”

Jan Minami, executive director of the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, further explained that the area has seen great disinvestment from the city for years — to the point where they need to follow through to ensure that their streets are properly swept.

“Chinatown is where they originally pushed people they didn’t want to live with,” Minami said. “And people think of it as the homeless capital of Fresno and ignore it.”

Despite the devastation of the rail, a possible renaissance seems to be in the making, and in the last year, eight buildings have been bought — or are in the process of being bought — that have either been abandoned, or are in need of major repairs. It’s an effort being led by a small band of business leaders and investors who are placing high bets on Chinatown’s big comeback.

Making homes, generating traffic

Icon Construction & Design co-founder Chris Wolfe and his partner, Clint Crouch, are two of the people banking heavily on success in Chinatown’s revival. In January 2018, Icon closed escrow on a 5,000-square-foot (plus basement) building at 935 F St. for $73,000. However, the price of the purchase is not the biggest investment they’ve made with this site. According to Wolfe, they’re planning to renovate the building and move their headquarters here from their office in Clovis.

Still, in order for Wolfe and Crouch to succeed, they said they first intend to have people not only visiting and shopping there — but also living there.

“We want to maximize the amount of residents that we can put down in Chinatown,” Wolfe said. “Because that will solve all the other problems.”

The Doizaki family is also taking this strategy to heart. In March, they completed the purchase on Nippon Building No. 1 — the original location of Central Fish — and Nippon Building No. 2 at a total cost of $625,000. According to Doizaki, “phase one” is expected to begin next year, in which Building No. 2 will be renovated and converted into another mixed-use residence.

They’ll be getting some well-timed company from the Fresno Housing Authority and the state. As part of the Transform Fresno program, construction is expected to begin in April on a 57-unit housing complex on the corner of F and Mariposa streets. With more than $24.6 million of state and Housing Authority funds, it will also be a mixed-use building.

However, the Chinatown Housing Project still has an obstacle to clear in the form of air pollution and smoke coming from the training tower being used by the Fresno Fire Department. Minami said the city is expected to cease burns at the site in the spring, at which point construction can begin. As for the tower, it’s expected to remain up, with murals painted on the walls.

Youth and nightlife

Another investor making his mark on Chinatown has been Mitch Pomeroy, managing member and Fresno representative for NSD Ventures and CV Properties of San Diego, and a customer at Central Fish since childhood. The companies he’s with are in the business of buying and renovating unused and mismanaged buildings all over town, and have revitalized neighborhoods from Clovis, to Riverpark, and El Dorado Park near Fresno State.

This year, Pomeroy has been travelling and taking notes in cities like Seattle, San Diego and Denver, where old buildings are being repurposed after years of vacancy. He’s also been observing Downtown Fresno’s efforts at revitalization — especially with the reopening of the Fulton District.

Pomeroy closed on the old Dick’s Hardware building in June, and is in the process of buying three more in the area. The key to making the district’s revitalization work, he said, is to bring an energetic sense of nightlife, referencing the Art Hop events and small businesses now occupying the Fulton Street strip.

“You’ve got the microbrewery district down there, you know — you’ve got all these different things happening,” Pomeroy said. “So the idea of it is really to get people to stay and come into that location and stay past 4 p.m.”

Likewise, Pomeroy envisions microbreweries and a possible winery for Chinatown. He would also like to see 50 to 75 small business people who can operate inside of a location without having to buy or lease an entire space, making it a promotion of small business and the community.

According to Doizaki, a strong emphasis is being placed on a youth movement for Chinatown, with young entrepreneurs filling in the retail spaces and renting apartments. He further pointed to some of the locations already in place in the area that give it some pre-existing appeal — namely the restaurants.

“You can’t mess with Chinatown when it comes to food,” Doizaki said. “Best tacos in Fresno? La Elegante; best barbeque? Chef Paul; best seafood? I’ll say here; Best breakfast? Ho Ho Kafe.”

Developers hope the beautification of Chinatown in preparation for the high-speed rail will help entice young business owners. As part of the TCC initiative, the City of Fresno has already pledged more than $6.9 million to better paving and an urban greening project that will also see improved lighting and the planting of 350 trees.

Meanwhile, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias (District 3) said more good news can be expected at the end of next month, when the Mono Street entrance to Chinatown reopens on Halloween.]

‘Hope is back’

While work has already started on Icon’s new headquarters, Doizaki says that this has primarily been the year of buying, with 2020 being the year when all the major construction work will be going on. And for the first time in years, he said there’s a renewed optimism in Chinatown.

“Even the Japanese left,” Doizaki explained. “I mean, they tried to stick it out as long as possible, but when hope is gone, that’s where it becomes very depressing. But hope is back, and we are the one’s who are trying to build the hope to other people who can come in.”

Making it work, however, will be a team effort and a full commitment.

“It’s not just one investor, or one government agency, but seeing everybody and what they’re doing right now, it’s a perfect opportunity to buy as many properties as we possibly can and have a significant impact on what’s going to happen here,” Pomeroy said.

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