Launching an Opportunity Zone in Fresno

Fresno, located in California’s Central Valley, has made progress in its efforts to end systemic inequities and expand economic opportunities. But city leaders know they must continue to address the persistent economic challenges — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — faced by residents in marginalized communities. To this end, FUSE Executive Fellow Clair Whitmer helped launch Opportunity Fresno, an initiative focused on generating sustainable, equitable, and inclusive investment in Fresno’s 47 Opportunity Zones. When COVID-19 hit, Clair helped support local businesses, creating new means of outreach and rolling out grant programs, while ensuring funds reached businesses in distressed neighborhoods.

To help the Office of the Mayor respond to the pandemic, Clair worked with the economic development team to create a Facebook page, mailing list, and more comprehensive, interactive website to better support businesses. The mailing list now includes more than 3,600 businesses, giving the team a critical channel for communicating with this community during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Her team also worked on the Save Our Small Businesses program, a citywide grant program, eventually taking over its administration and crafting guidelines to enhance the inclusion of businesses operating in distressed neighborhoods. This made Fresno one of the few cities in the country to align local grant programs with federal guidelines. In 2021, Clair led her team to design new programs that reach “hard to reach businesses.” With support of the National League of Cities (NLC) and in partnership with the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, Clair helped to launch the first Kiva crowdsourced loan program in Fresno. She wrote a proposal for the NLC’s Equitable Economic Mobility Initiative (EEMI) grant, proposing to partner with Bitwise Industries and work with the technology “apprentices” in its workforce development program on creating new strategies and methods for connecting to “hard to reach” businesses. Fresno was one of eight cities in the country to be approved for an EEMI grant. While specific solutions are still in the planning phase, ideas include improving language support for all four of Fresno’s major language communities – English, Spanish, Hmong and Punjabi—and letting small business owners sign up for text alerts of new grant programs instead of a mailing list. Her work will protect and reinforce the city’s economic resilience both during and after COVID-19, and ensure that the needs of Fresno’s “hard to reach” businesses are met.

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