Could an iconic downtown Fresno building, vacant for 50 years, find new life?
Several elected leaders, highlighted by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, held a news conference Friday morning touting $88 million in federal funds for Central Valley agriculture programs.
The location was the Bank of Italy building at the corners of Fulton and Tulare streets. Opened in 1918, the building (named for the company that eventually became Bank of America in 1930) has not had any tenants since 1972.
Giant green dumpsters were spotted on the ground floor last week, perhaps cleaning up the first floor in anticipation of the news conference.
The ownership group and local leaders hope programs funded by the federal grants will lease space in the Bank of Italy building. No deal is in place yet, just talks.
But, if the building were to become a beehive of commerce once again, it would be a significant accomplishment for Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer.
Many mayors before him thought they could reopen the Bank of Italy’s doors, but none pulled it off.
Bringing Life to a Vacant Landmark
A big red ‘X’ on the side of building lets firefighters know that no one is inside, to prevent unnecessary rescue attempts.
During the event, Dyer showed Padilla and others the building’s first floor. Ornate columns and light fixtures remain, even if in need of serious repair.
Renderings on easels of possible plans for a revamped building lined the first floor, 25-foot high ceilings and all. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
The federal grants, through the American Rescue Plan Act and distributed locally by Fresno Economic Development Corp. ($23 million), and Central Valley Community Foundation ($65 million), will create several programs to help with agricultural workers and education. They include the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3) initiative.
Ashley Swearengin, president/CEO of CVCF, says federal money will not go into renovating the building.
“As part of the overall initiative, we know that we need a headquarters for climate, smart food and ag technology, the industry, the community partners, etcetera,” Swearengin said. “We as a coalition are going to be working on how we put dollars together to actually maybe, hopefully someday very soon occupy this place.”
Penstar Banking on Programs Moving In
The Penstar Group, which bought the building in 2009, is banking on leasing contracts with those programs, particularly iCREATE. A news release described iCREATE as “an ag-tech hub with the mission of accelerating the development and transfer of technology between researchers at local universities and farmers across the region.”
Scott Anderson, who is Penstar’s vice president, says renovations would cost $35 million, potentially funded by private financing.
“The three (federal) programs have targeted the building as a possible location … and we’re hopeful that maybe between all the different users, we could pull something together and renovate the building,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the goal is to make the Bank of Italy “a Class A office building that will be housed inside of historic building shell.”
How has such a prominent building been without tenants for 50 years?
“It’s hard to imagine a building of this nature, as ornate as it is, that we as a society could let something like this just sit idle for that long. It’s pretty remarkable. But it’s a project that’s close to our heart. We’re passionate about it, and we want to renovate it and put it back online. So that’s our goal,” Anderson said.