Written by The Business Journal Staff
New Council member Luis Chavez, sensing an opportunity, pointed at Olivier sitting onstage next to him, eliciting one of the morning’s biggest laughs.
That was the tone of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues talk Friday morning as the two councilmembers discussed the region’s biggest issues with a side of humor, including economic development, downtown revitalization, high-speed rail and infrastructure.
Olivier made the pot statement in response to a question about Proposition 64, the state’s successful recreational marijuana initiative, and whether Fresno would welcome dispensaries once the state begins licensing such facilities next year.
Olivier said he supported Prop 64 — “that may shock some people in this room,” he said — adding he was open to “letting the free market decide.”
“I’m not a drug warrior,” Olivier said, but he tempered his remarks by being realistic about just how lucrative pot revenues might be as cities including Coalinga and Hanford welcome a burgeoning recreational cannabis industry.
“You can’t pave the streets of Fresno in gold with pot money,” Olivier added.
It’s timely as the city council prepares to debate the issue of recreational marijuana dispensaries. In a recent speech, Mayor Lee Brand said there could as much as $10 million a year in licensing revenue, reported the Central Valley Observer.
Councilmember Garry Bredefeld has come out against dispensaries in the city limits. That seems to be the position of Councilmember Chavez, who said he didn’t support Prop. 64.
Chavez cited his time as a Fresno Unified School District trustee in explaining his position, stating that drug houses near schools are a major problem, and that in his time in office he had a part in shutting down six of them.
Economic development was an area Olivier and Chavez saw eye-to-eye on. Both are optimistic that Mayor Brand will have a pivotal role in changing how things run inside and outside of city hall.
Chavez said he wanted to direct his efforts on making the city’s planning department more responsive to business, restructuring the business licensing structure and creating economic incentive zones.
Chavez said Mayor Brand asked him to join the task force for Business Friendly Fresno, an initiative started by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin. He would like to see the city’s planning and permitting department operate like Domino’s with its Tracker system, which lets customers know the status of their order in real time.
Chavez added that business owners need to know what’s happening with their projects in order to be successful and create jobs.
“The uncertainty piece is what kills business,” he said.
Olivier, who has about two more years in his council term, and recently announced a run for Tom Berryhill’s 8th District state Senate seat next year, echoed that statement.
“The biggest impediment to business in the city right now is the city,” he said.
On the subject of downtown revitalization, Chavez said the community needed to encourage events like the Taco Truck Throwdown at Chukchansi Park in an effort to attract more people from around the region. He added that the bus rapid transit system will also be important to downtown revitalization.
Olivier said establishing more housing in downtown is an important part of the puzzle in attracting more businesses downtown. Also key is getting rid of parking meters and one-way streets downtown.
He joked that a spate of microbreweries locating downtown may not represent the economic demands of average Fresnans as much as ripping out parking meters.
“They don’t want a pear cider,” Olivier said. “They don’t want a ticket.”
To the apparent shock of some of the crowd, Olivier said the city is handcuffed in removing parking meters as that revenue is part of the collateral for the downtown stadium loan.
“They mortgaged the future of downtown,” Olivier said of the Fresno City Council that approved construction of the facility, which he said currently needs about $24 million in deferred maintenance.
On the subject of Fresno’s deferred maintenance needs on parks and various infrastructure, Olivier said he is open to selling off city-owned assets, though he didn’t indicate specifics.
When the subject shifted to the high-speed rail project, Chavez reiterated his support and the need for Fresno to be involved in the process, especially with landing a possible heavy maintenance facility that could create more than 1,000 jobs.
But if the project stalls and the city is left with unfinished infrastructure such as the viaduct being built near Cedar Avenue along Highway 99, Chavez pointed to other infrastructure that will have been completed in city limits and subsidized by other parts of the state.
“At the end of the day, if nothing happens for x, y, or z reasons, the City of Fresno will still have new roads and bridges,” Chavez said.