Fresno Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer will never be confused with Joe Biden. But Biden’s presidential winning “One America” theme echoed Dyer’s “One Fresno” slogan from earlier in the year.
And, just like Biden, Dyer promises to represent all of his constituents while tackling a daunting list of challenges complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, unlike Biden who has little time to transition into a White House that Donald Trump is reluctant to exit, Dyer had nine months to prepare for his 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5 hand-off from close ally Lee Brand.
Dyer Hopes for Fast Start Despite COVID Challenges
Dyer has used that time working toward what he hopes will be a fast start on corraling COVID, laying the groundwork for Fresno’s economic recovery, and elevating the entire city’s quality of life. The 61-year-old says he’s fit after a bout with COVID and is pouring all his energy into the job.
If all goes according to plan, there will be new approaches to guiding homeless people toward services, a downtown renaissance, a reborn Blackstone Avenue brimming with new housing, a flood of businesses starting or landing in Fresno, improved public transportation linking downtown, Fresno City College and Fresno State, and brighter days for south Fresno.
Dyer’s ambitious goals have yet to be ravaged by the realities of politics, budgets, and bureaucracies. But he believes he can successfully navigate the politics while selling leaders and residents on the right strategies to promote economic and racial equality over the next four or eight years.
Will a Left-Dominated Council Stymie Dyer?
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the conservative Dyer must work with a city council that counts six Democrats and just one Republican.
“Everyone is elected by a base, and I have a conservative base. But I have to represent the whole city,” Dyer says. “My experience as police chief has prepared me. “When people called 9-1-1, we didn’t say, ‘State your political party.’ We said, ‘State your emergency.’
“It’s hard to get things done unless you’re flexible on policy. I won’t sacrifice my principles, but I’ll do my very best to make decisions that are in the best interest of all of Fresno.”
Dyer says that campaigning and talking to a cross-section of local leaders via Zoom after the election have shaped his political philosophy and priorities.
“What I learned knocking on doors is that we need to focus on poverty, crime, the homeless, and downtown. I know there will be times when we don’t get to agreement, but as mayor, I will take the time to listen and learn as much as I can about an issue and understand the various perspectives. With so many divisive issues out there, taking a position left or right, that isn’t always the best answer.”
In a recent interview, Dyer tackled an array of questions.
How Will You Deal with the Pandemic?
Dyer: I’ve given this a lot of thought and been engaged with the administration and the city council. It’s always at the top of my concerns. We need to get the vaccine out and get people healthy as quickly as possible. We also need to address the economic impacts and relationships that have been damaged as a result of businesses closing. There is a lot of anger out there, and there’s a lot of work to do to repair that.
I think I have a good understanding of COVID and the unpredictability of it. My dad got it before I did, and I watched the impact it had on him. Hearing him say, “I thought I was taking my last breath.” My wife, perhaps, got a lesser strain than I did. For me, the lungs were the concerning thing. I would feel it subside and then feel it come back at night. It’s something we must take very seriously. Certainly. the next few weeks are going to be very challenging for us. We have to be very careful about how we interact.
Where Do You Draw the Line With Businesses Ignoring Shutdown Orders?
Nobody wants a ticket, nobody wants to be arrested. There are people who unintentionally break the law and others who are egregious violators. It’s about education and explaining why this is being done — especially as it pertains to what’s really happening at our local hospitals with COVID. We have to do everything that we can as a city to accommodate business in situations that are outside the norm while keeping people safe.
Fresno, Like Many West Coast Cities, Is Struggling With Homelessness. What Changes Are Coming?
As a community, we’re going to make incredible progress. We’re going to go deeper in answering, “How do we house the homeless and how do we provide the follow-up and the services they need.” It’s important that we partner with as many agencies as possible in making homeless people productive citizens. We need a more comprehensive, sustained strategy.
Overall, our philosophy has to change. If there’s a 9-1-1 call about a homeless person, normally the first response is from police. I believe, in the future, that law enforcement won’t be the first response. If we can divert that call to another center that can send a social services professional or trained volunteer, there will be a better result. We need to take advantage of the people who are not law enforcement but can call law enforcement if the situation calls for it.
I’ve seen the effectiveness of the Rescue Mission’s “disciples.” We need a hundred of those disciples and other individuals with a heart for the homeless. People who won’t get frustrated but also won’t be deceived and can help homeless people get off the streets.
We also have to get homeless people off the freeways, even though the freeways are the state’s responsibility. It’s our folks driving those freeways. We’re working with Caltrans and others on a plan to do that.
Where Does Downtown Rank on Your Priority List?
It’s very important to restore pride in the downtown area, and we will. I want to see a lot of (construction) cranes there. My number one goal is to increase the number of people living downtown from the 3,000 now to 10,000. That is what it will take to sustain downtown, especially the nightlife. We have to appeal to people under 40 and give them the opportunity to live there. There will be an expansion of the Brewery District, and new development in the entire South Stadium area, North Fulton, and Chinatown. The impact of the High-Speed Rail station will be significant. I am meeting with various developers, going over their projects, and finding out what their challenges are.
What Are Your Economic Development Plans?
You’re going to literally see a Red Carpet at City Hall rolled out daily. We want businesses to know that they will be welcomed in Fresno. No longer will we ask, “What do you want?” We’re going to say, “How do we help you?” To increase the number of businesses, we must become a one-stop-shop and expand our economic development team.
I have been meeting with manufacturers, asking “What drew you here?” and “What are the challenges of remaining here?” We are learning from them while also recognizing that we have a lot to offer. We’re in the middle of California, we’re a transportation hub, and we have an available workforce that is only going to become more skilled because we have some of the best vocational training in the United States. We’ve done some good work, but there’s so much more we can do and we need others to do.
A Lawsuit Stopped a Planned Industrial Park in South Fresno. What’s Next?
We have to finalize the South-Central Specific Plan (and settle the lawsuit.) It’s important that we have the ability to hire people from the local neighborhoods with the right pay. It’s important to give them the jobs skills they need. Fortunately, we are blessed with the ability to train people. With the West Fresno Campus (of Fresno City College), we’ll have the largest automotive training center west of the Mississippi. Graduates will be able to work on all vehicles, including electric and hydrogen. We have to take advantage of that and give businesses the opportunity to locate here.
Consultants tell us that while companies used to look for incentives what they want today is a skilled workforce, quality of life, and a government that will expedite their projects. We can do all of that.
What Does the Future Hold for Blackstone Avenue?
You’re going to see a lot of development on Blackstone, housing, and mixed-use. Over time, the whole corridor is going to fill in with housing because of the change in retail. I don’t know specifically what it will look like but we will link downtown through a transportation project to the Tower and City College, then over to Blackstone and Bus Rapid Transit. And that will link up that entire corridor with Campus Pointe and Fresno State.
Lee Brand Got Flak From the Right for Working Closely With Gov. Newsom. What Will Your Approach Be?
What Lee has said is right. It’s most important to set aside politics. It’s important that we work with federal and state leaders so that we can get the resources we need to help Fresno. Every mayor has done that. The $92 million in CARES money we received, Fresno wasn’t going to receive that at the onset, but Fresno was brought into it because of Lee’s work with the Big 13 mayors. Those relationships are critical. As police chief, I learned to work with whoever is in office, Republican or Democrat.
Will You Be Able to Keep Your Hands Off the Police Department?
It hasn’t been hard so far and I don’t believe that it will be very difficult in the future because there is so much to do as mayor. I know the importance of a police chief, as well as the rest of the departments, having autonomy. I think that’s when they perform best. (New police chief) Paco Balderrama is a person of extreme integrity and he is very passionate about our community. I’ve spent hours and hours on the phone with Paco talking about policing philosophy. I believe he will be great for Fresno.
But I also recognize that safety for a community is foundational. I will never take my eyes off that responsibility.
As Police Chief, You Had a Huge Media Profile. Will That Continue?
That’s my style. I believe when there is a crisis, people want to see their leader out front, a voice of calm. They don’t want a leader out there criticizing everyone. They want a leader telling them everything is going to be OK.