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FRESNO, Calif. — It’s not New York. It’s not San Francisco or Chicago or Miami. But there’s something about this place that trumps the bright-lights-big-city allure of more notable urban hubs, especially for young people. It’s cheaper, and they can break into the city’s power structure at a young age because it’s smaller and there’s less competition.
That’s why Fresno, in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley and in the shadow of Yosemite National Park, is surfacing on lists of most livable cities for people 35 and under, along with other unlikely locales: Omaha, Neb.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Tucson, Ariz.
Based on a lengthy list of metrics — including everything from a youthful population to the price of marijuana — Fresno emerges as far more appealing for young people than trendier, better-known cities like San Diego and Philadelphia.
“We used everything from median age to unemployment to average cost for a two-bedroom apartment to the cost of a pint of Guinness and the cost of an ounce of weed to the number of coffee shops and music venues and the cost of manicures and pedicures,” said Victoria Cavaliere, one of the lead reporters on the project. “The data doesn’t lie.”
Yes, these are all things that matter to younger people — especially in rough times.
The economic downturn that has yet to fully loosen its grip on the nation has added sheen to less glamorous cities and places often derided by their critics as cow towns or, in the case of Fresno, the armpit of the state.
The Internet has also given the most remote corners of the country access to things that previously could be found only in big cities, whether it’s gourmet foods or high-powered jobs that can be done from home.
And young entrepreneurs, who might have had to wait years before starting a business in first-tier cities, are finding opportunities in more modest places.
“There’s a bit of a pioneering instinct,” said Ilana Preuss, vice president and chief of staff of Smart Growth America, a national coalition that promotes growth without harming the environment (compact neighborhoods, public transit). “They feel they have the power to create a new economy … These are places to have businesses because of incredibly strong personal connections.”
Jake Soberal has no regrets returning to the hometown that he spent a few years avoiding: college in North Carolina, law school in the Los Angeles area, jobs in Manhattan and Phoenix.
At 27, he and other entrepreneurs founded Bitwise Industries, a technology hub that has brought 23 companies under one roof in the city’s Mural District. “It’s not an incubator, it’s a community,” according to Bitwise’s website.
The company’s Geekwise Academy trains people to provide talent that the software industry needs.
“In Fresno, you don’t have to wait for your pedigree to ripen,” Soberal said. “I own a home that would be $1 million in Los Angeles, and I’m 27 years old.”
Bitwise filled 100,000 square feet of space in 20 weeks. Tripling the space is in the works.
Soberal has been active in the city’s Boomerang Project to lure young professionals back to Fresno to live and work.
When he returned to his hometown, he said it was the first time he’d "been around people who I’d want to be when I grow up.”
In Fresno, you don’t have to wait for your pedigree to ripen.
Bitwise Industries founder
A grassroots organization formed eight years ago, Fresno’s Leading Young Professionals (FLYP), caters to 21- to 40-year-olds and helps them make professional and civic connections. The goal is to bring young people back to the area and give those already there reasons to stay.
“Fresno is a city where anybody can be involved just by raising your hand,” said Sarah Moffatt, 34, a native of nearby Madera who heads FLYP this year. A field representative for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Moffatt works on narcotics policy, including issues raised by the boom in marijuana growers in the Central Valley.
Lisa Burger, 37, executive producer at KMPH Fox 26, grew up in small Grand Junction, Colo., and moved to the big city — the Los Angeles area — at the age of 21. She said it’s unlikely she could have hoped to become a news producer at an L.A. station at such a young age. But she could in Fresno.
The “big fish in a small pond” adage surfaces often in cities like Fresno. Moffatt and Burger point to a recent trip they took to one of Fresno’s sister cities — chic Verona in Italy — as an opportunity that young professionals such as themselves would never have had in Los Angeles or New York.
Fresno is not small. The city has more than half a million residents and is larger than the state capital, Sacramento. But because it’s in the heart of farm country, it lacks big-city glamour. What it does offer is a more compact power structure that allows even the young to make a difference.
Estella Cisneros, a 28-year-old lawyer, grew up in nearby Merced County and, as many young locals do, went away to college (Stanford University, Yale University). She lived in Sacramento and San Francisco and spent time in New York City. Then she did what many don’t do: She came back.
“We know a lot of people leave and never come back,” she said. “I made a concerted effort to come back.”
As a lawyer for California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides counsel to immigrants, she wants to create a progressive community in an area dominated by agriculture. She and other young professionals are tackling air and water quality issues in the San Joaquin Valley, for example. “I pretty much know all the attorneys here, and that’s very helpful,” Cisneros said. “And I think I could probably afford to buy a house here.”
Being close to family is another draw for Fresno natives who return home, a nesting inclination that flourishes in tough economic times. Moffatt can take her nephew to baseball games; the stadium for the minor-league Fresno Grizzlies is in the heart of downtown and has a big fan base.
“It’s $14 a ticket” and a chance to see future major-league players, she said.
‘They love the space’
Reviving downtown is a top priority for the city, which has one of the nation's earliest pedestrian malls, the six-block-long Fulton Mall, one of the few that haven’t been dismantled and reopened to traffic. Changes are coming. The city received a $16 million federal grant in early September to reconstruct the area with wide sidewalks, and developers are turning old department stores into apartments.
“It’s an integral part of the city and the densest area in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Elliott Balch, the city’s downtown revitalization manager.
Fresno will also be a stop on the controversial high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, and the train station connects to the Fulton Mall.
Elizabeth Perez, the 35-year-old founder and CEO of GC Green, an environmental services firm now in San Diego, was lured back to her hometown through the Boomerang Project. She is looking for a home for her family and is excited about new contracts to provide efficiency training in the Central Valley and conduct an energy-efficiency assessment for local schools.
“My kids have lived in San Diego,” Perez said. “Here, they’re closer to the mountains, and they love being in smaller communities. They love the space. They’re not used to that.”
Arthur Moye, originally from the San Bernardino area, worked for a big accounting firm in San Francisco but could only afford to live in Daly City. His commute consisted of a 45-minute drive to Fremont to catch the BART for another hour-long ride to San Francisco. It was a 3.5-hour round trip.
“I lived in a 500-square-foot apartment with no view of anything and was paying $1,500 a month,” said Moye, 30. “When I got to the BART in my business casual, there were hundreds or thousands of people who looked just like me. I was little in a big old sea.”
On a visit to his sister-in-law, who works for Fresno State University, he picked up a real estate magazine and realized he could actually afford to buy a whole house in Fresno. He got a job with Deloitte Touche. That was 2007.
Now he has his own firm, MBS Accountancy, a house, a rental property and a 13-month-old baby.
“I’m able to work out of my home and join organizations that would have been off limits in major cities,” he said.