Reputational Damage in Economic Development
Updated: Apr 19
It's been nearly two years since I surprised everyone, including myself, and moved to Fresno to work for the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. With the end of my FUSE Corps Fellowship around the corner, I thought it was time for the obligatory "what I learned in Fresno" blog post.
But this post template that I use requires a cover image. Casual Googling for said image revealed to me the 2015 movie "Addicted to Fresno", which intends to be a dark comedy with a top-notch ensemble cast but instead -- says the Roger Ebert.com review -- is a "mean-spirited, dull and silly movie...populated by awful people doing awful things that awful people only do in awful movies." I still spent my Friday night watching this movie take potshots at Fresno instead of honing my thoughts about economic development for my blog post.
Until...these two streams of consciousness crossed at the moment that I clicked the movie trivia icon on Amazon.com.
How many times have I said those words over the last two years: "Fresno is the fifth largest city in California". Approximately 1.1 gazillion times. But the knife in the heart was reading that the movie was filmed in Fresno...because the producer couldn't afford Cleveland.
And that's why this movie is not funny. You can only properly satirize something that you love. Satire about a place or a person is only funny if it's a love bite, a deep, potentially supporating love bite.
If the film-makers knew and loved Fresno even a little bit, they would have filmed the characters drinking Tioga-Sequoia beer and eating Korean Tacos in the Brewery District my boss worked so hard to get started; or stepping over a single, smushed fake eyelash left forlorn on the sidewalk as I did the other day; or shown the lesbian sister character confronting a Proud Boy in the Tower District in protest of the purchase of the Tower movie theater by an evangelical church; or shown the sex-addict sister with a chip on her shoulder working out her issues at The Art of Anger rage room, as my family and I did last summer. The bar mitzvah scene would clearly have been transformed into a quinceañera. The soundtrack would have featured songs from the album "We'll Always Have Fresno." The Russian grandparents would obviously have been cast as Armenians, although the diaper jokes would still have been gross. The poet character would have claimed William Saroyan as his inspiration instead of the weather. Why doesn't Austin get a bum rap for being hot? It's just as hot as Fresno -- no, hotter! -- and if you live there, your children will be born Texans...but everyone still seems to want to move to Austin, or so we keep hearing.
Anyway, that movie would have been Fresno. That movie might have been funny.
Instead we were treated to lots of shots of cheap motels populated by prostitutes and their mullet-wearing customers, garbage-filled canals that make great places to dump dead bodies, and of course, this sign, which I was told specifically not to use in the marketing collateral I created for Fresno this year because Damn That Sign.
This is also Fresno. And, yes, it could also have been funny because whatever is true is ultimately funny if you think about it long enough.
So...what do you do as an economic developer working in a city that is literally the butt of a 1-hour-25-minute joke about your "butt crack" of a city?
You do the same thing this movie should have done: you love it.
You love it, as it is...not just the dressed up, River Park version in the North end of the city. You love the whole city, the city that has to work so friggin' hard to Attract respect and even to Retain the affection of its residents.
You don't try to replace the zapatería and the funky little botánicas on Fulton Street with Nordstrom's. Instead, you try to attract young hipsters to live downtown and convince them to buy stuff at dressed-up botánicas next to a fancy tequila tasting room featuring product from Guadalajara, which, by the way!, is a direct flight from the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. You try to help the people in Fig Garden understand that affordable housing and bike lanes are not going to ruin their way of life. You try to get a real grocery store to go into Southwest Fresno so that the residents in the brand-new apartments over there don't have to drive 20 minutes to buy meat that isn't kind of green. You try to get Fresno State graduates to stay and start businesses instead of cutting and running for Los Angeles the second they graduate. You tell stories about real people in real neighborhoods who have to strive and overcome and fight like hell to make it in life. You stop trying to be San Francisco....or Austin.
One of my biggest challenges in trying to talk up Fresno is that Fresnans also make mean-spirited jokes about Fresno. Too many of them accept their typecasting as people like the characters in this "dull and silly" movie who think that living in Fresno is proof of having made poor life decisions.
And yet...the kindest review of the movie "Addicted to Fresno" that I could find was actually published in Fresno State's Collegian newspaper. It stated:
The redeeming quality of this film was the very real idea of addiction and the difficulty of accepting your flaws.
And that's what "inclusive economic development" means to me. It's not how we talk about it. There are methodological theories and quantifiable outcomes and inspiring principles and Best Practices and many other useful things that I've tried to learn about while in Fresno.
But, underneath all of that, it means accepting the flaws in the ecosystem you're trying to promote instead of marketing them away...and working to help others see the value -- including the quantifiable economic value -- in places that maybe aren't always postcard-worthy but that can inspire love and pride, if film-makers from Cleveland would only stop making fun of us.
It means celebrating that love and pride when you see it. As an inclusive economic developer in Fresno, it's my job to demonstrate the potential return on investment in the city where these young people live:
"Let 'em know that it's the F-R-E-S-N-O thang...California show us love..."
More "Addicted to Fresno" movie trivia. Yes, the pet cemetary where the main characters ultimately dispose of the body shown in the movie poster is a real place: