After nearly a year-and-a-half of waiting, Hakk Williams is anxious for Oct. 21 to arrive.
That’s when workers finally will clear out the last of the heavy machinery and the rows of temporary chain-link fences that have lined the Fulton Mall, allowing people and cars unimpeded access to the six-block shopping district in downtown Fresno.
That already has happened earlier this month on the two southern and northern blocks of the mall, but opening the last two center blocks – where Fashion Fair, the women’s clothing store Williams manages, is located – remains a couple of weeks away.
That’s still a long wait for Williams and the rest of the operators of businesses along the unopened blocks who have had to endure since April of last year the daily effects of major construction along each of the six blocks, including the dust and the noise as workers and heavy machinery ripped up the old pedestrian pathways to replace them with streets and sidewalks.
“The chain-link fences out front, it’s like I’m in a jail. I’m in a prison. It covered everything up,” Williams said of the fencing that lined the street to keep pedestrians out of harms way while the street work was done, some of it crisscrossing entire blocks to the point that merchants and people who regularly walk Fulton Mall called it “the maze.”
Between all that fencing and the broken streets, “Many people think we closed or think we are going to close,” which badly cut down on foot traffic and customers for the stores here.
Williams said at his store, business dropped 90 percent and noted some neighboring businesses couldn’t hold out and shut down, which further hurt the businesses that remained, as fewer shops and restaurants mean fewer people coming downtown.
Bill Gates, who for six years has operated Alice Shoes inside the Mammoth Mall at Fulton Mall, said he kept afloat driving for Uber as a side job.
“But what can I do? I lost a lot of money,” while the construction was underway outside.
Qiuyue Grier, owner of China Express on Fulton Street, said business at her restaurant dropped from about $1,000 a day in sales to $200 during the construction, and the only reason hers didn’t close like other restaurants on her block was that her brother in China sent her money.
“Oh, it was very tough [the] last year. See, we need to pay the house, the car, everything payments.”
Gaby DeAlba, a supervisor at Jalisco Jewelers, said her family didn’t have to go that far to keep their four businesses on the mall operating, as they focused on advertising, social media and cold calling previous customers to let them know they still were open, despite the construction mess out front.
Even then, she said, “sometime, we go only two customers a day, and they were repeats.”
But she’s counting on big changes after the construction is done to convert Fulton Mall from a pedestrian shopping center in city’s old downtown district to a regular street that cars can travel through and park on, along with sidewalks for pedestrians.
That work initially had been scheduled to be finished by May of this year, but construction crews ran into delays, including heavy winter rains and the discovery of basements –some extending from buildings that currently stand on the block, some the built-over remains of long-gone buildings — under portions of the new street and sidewalks.
Those basements had to be filled and have retaining walls built in order to support the new street and sidewalks on top of them, along with the vehicles moving on them, said Craig Scharton, interim president and CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, a collaborative between businesses and building owners promoting downtown commerce and revitalization.
The renovations to Fulton Street ha a budget of $22.3 million, which includes $1.3 in infrastructure work the city had done under the street at the same time. The project is being paid for mostly with a $15.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant awarded to the city of Fresno. The rest of the money is coming from Fresno County’s Measure C sales tax proceeds and California’s gasoline tax, both earmarked to fund transportation projects, along with a $250,000 donation by the Downtown Fresno Partnership.
It’s not clear how much the delays and extra work to deal with the uncovered basements have added to the cost of the Fulton Street changes – which includes $6 million to relocate and rebuild fountains and art that had been on the pedestrian walkway — but Fresno’s deputy city engineer, Randall Morrison, said he believes it will be covered by the more than $2 million contingency fund city leaders set aside to cover unexpected costs.
A big part of the reason for the changes along the Fulton Mall was to draw more business there, after the area experienced a decline starting in the 1980s that included the exodus of major retailers JCPenney, Gottschalks, Montgomery Ward and Woolworth, along with a further decline in shoppers in recent years.
Today, 18 of the storefronts along the mall are vacant, at least five of them the direct result of lost business stemming from the street renovations, Scharton said.
But the area is showing initial signs of a comeback, at least along the streets that have reopened.
Pamela Smith, manager of Take 3 Burger, said that in just the first few days after her block on the south end of the mall was opened to traffic, business picked up by about 60 percent.
“People just weren’t coming down here because they didn’t have a place to park,” before the changes, she said. “So when they took the fences [down], and people were able to maneuver more, then we started seeing ore (customer) traffic.”
Across the street at La Maison Kabob, restaurant Fidel Ortiz and his partner opened a couple of months ago in a vacant storefront betting that the changes to the street would bring in a better customer base than before.
And, as he hoped, Ortiz said he also saw business spike after his block opened to traffic.
“A lot of businesses were struggling,” before the construction, he said, citing his conversations with other business owners on the block. “People had to park far away,” which deterred many from coming the shopping district to shop and eat.
“Now that the streets is open, there is traffic coming through — more people walking, There is a difference,” said Ortiz, adding that he hopes business will get even better once people can drive and walk through all six blocks of Fulton Street unimpeded.
Smith agreed, saying that the changes in traffic also could result in shops and restaurants there being open longer.
Currently, the businesses there depend greatly on the patronage of workers at offices and other businesses nearby, which is why foot traffic dies down considerably at 1:30 p.m., after the lunch hour, and many shops and restaurants there close about 3 p.m.
Since her block opened to traffic, Smith said she’s seeing the heavier foot traffic extend to about 3 p.m. on weekdays, and if that picks up further after all the streets open, it’s possible businesses there will start extending their hours into the evenings.
In fact, at Take 3, “We plan to add dinner hours, though when hasn’t been decided.”
As for when the last two blocks open – between Fresno and Inyo streets — Mayor Lee Brand has promised to make a celebration of it, complete with planned block party and parade, at which time the district will formally lose its “mall” designation and be rechristened “Fulton Street.”
“It’s a big, historical event,” DeAlba said of the changes finally getting done.
And considering all that the businesses there had to endure to get to this point, she said, a parade seems appropriate.
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