Anticipation was in the air as dozens of Bakersfield business and political leaders jammed into a small room on the second floor of the Padre Hotel Wednesday morning for what was sure to be a big announcement.
Once things got going, levity took over. The two presenters, one of whom stood in front of the crowd while the other spoke via video link from Fresno, made little jokes and took friendly jabs at each other.
The day’s big news, as The Californian reported Wednesday morning, was that downtown Fresno-based tech hub Bitwise Industries had raised $27 million that, among other things, would help pay for the company’s expansion into Bakersfield.
Bitwise’s plans call for coding classes, shared office space and other forms of local investment. Initial operations are expected to begin by early next year, followed by the purchase of a permanent space downtown for Bitwise’s new second home.
There were questions from the audience, naturally. Someone asked why the company chose to expand into Bakersfield as opposed to some other “underdog” city.
“The answer is, we were terrified of what you’d do if we didn’t” come to Bakersfield, quipped Jake Soberal, Bitwise’s CEO and co-founder.
There’s truth in his jest: The company has talked for about two years with local leaders anxious to bring Bitwise’s brand of tech culture to downtown Bakersfield. By now, anything less would have been a big disappointment. Instead, people in attendance saw the news as cause for celebration.
“My initial feeling is this is literally game-changing for the community,” said Kern County’s administrative officer over workforce development, Teresa Hitchcock.
She linked workforce development, a key focus for Bitwise, with local economic development. Her prediction was that local companies will quickly recognize the value of having a training entity come to Kern, and that other individuals will see the value later as they begin to benefit from expanded opportunities.
Bakersfield businessman Morgan Clayton saw substantial promise in Wednesday’s announcement.
“Bitwise has validated we have a starting point,” he said. “We are now connecting to the millennials,” he added, referring to 20- and 30-something-year-olds who have largely embraced digital innovation and its associated business opportunities.
Local economic development chief Richard Chapman, president and CEO of Kern Economic Development Corp., traced the news to a tour he and others involved with KEDC took to Fresno in 2017. That’s when Bakersfield leaders learned how tech hubs can spark new businesses and good-paying careers.
He expressed hope Bitwise will attract other tech companies, which will, in turn, offer internships for local youth with computer programming talent.
David Anderson was optimistic for different reasons. The Bakersfield financial advisor and managing partner at Moneywise Guys noted that downtown has added positive amenities in recent years that could be attractive to tech companies and the kind of people they employ.
Bringing Bitwise into the mix, he said, “takes downtown to the next level.”
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) — Bitwise 41 in Downtown Fresno is taking shape. Offices are getting closer and closer to completion in the building formerly known as the Old Spaghetti Factory.
“We are inside, so the glass is in, lights are up, doors are on, windows are set and you can tell it is starting to look like a finished building which is super exciting,” said Channelle Charest with Bitwise.
The new building is adding to Bitwise Industries growing footprint in Fresno. They have four campuses total and two of them are currently under construction including Bitwise 41 on Ventura and R street. It’s located just steps away from the Hive and State Center Warehouse.
“Accessibility is key, anyone can get here, it is super easy to see right off the freeway and it is a historical building in Fresno,” said Charest.
Business FresYes Realty has already announced they’re moving in along with 150 agents, they’re taking up the entire second floor. They’re not the only ones, Express Employment Professionals is also calling the building home and, More tenants are on the way. Bitwise is staying tight-lipped but is dropping some hints.
“It will be a mix of our base tech tenants which is great,” she said. “They will be focusing on education and also expanding our startup community in Fresno as well.”
In addition, they’ll also have others moving in that will support their current occupant base. Bitwise 41 is scheduled to open August 1st of this year.
“It’s like a California version of the New York versus New Jersey thing—but maybe worse,” Smith says. “You’re so close to one of the biggest metro areas in the country, but never quite there.”
Like many of his generation, Smith, 37, moved to bigger cities in search of opportunity. In his case, he sought work in urban planning and commercial development in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. But as he developed a passion for downtown revitalization, he began wondering, why not Bakersfield? He returned to his hometown in 2014 with a hunch that the city was ripe for redevelopment, and soon began work on what would become the 17th Place Townhomes.
Since opening in 2016, the high-end three-story, 44-unit downtown development represents the first market-rate housing built in the city’s core in decades. It’s not every day the city gets new housing, complete with a dog park, fountains, and a fire pit. Now that the development is fully leased—not a small accomplishment for new housing asking the highest rent in town, at between $1,630 and $1,830 for a two-bedroom—its success has convinced Smith and his firm, Sage Equities Real Estate, to break ground later this year on a new 53-unit project downtown.
“What we’re doing is a real niche product,” he says. “But you can really start seeing people get excited about this neighborhood.”
A bet on Bakersfield and rebuilding downtown
Smith’s bet on Bakersfield represents a new era of development, however small, for this Central Valley city. A recent report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found Bakersfield to have one of the highest rates of millennial movers and homeowners, setting off a series of stories written with a tone of “wait, that Bakersfield?” as if it were a shock that somebody might find the city was both a good value and a good opportunity.
After all, compared to coastal California, where were the high-paying tech jobs and new homes? When California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s troubled high-speed rail project would focus on the Bakersfield to Merced section, connecting two Central Valley locations, many rail supporters felt Newsom was saying the train would never connect to LA or San Francisco.
The 17th Place Townhomes helped bring more attention to a newly christened neighborhood, Eastchester, that’s beginning to blossom, and includes restaurants, coffee shops, and new businesses. In this formerly industrial stretch of town, business owners are finding new uses for old buildings, including Cafe Smitten, another Smith project, and Dot x Ott, a just-opened seasonal kitchen that sources its produce from a farm 10 miles away.
Though tiny, the downtown turnaround is palpable, says Debbie Lewis, a wealth manager who moved back to Bakersfield a few years ago.
“The downtown that I grew up hearing about and knew as a young adult was a ghost town that people were hesitant to visit and a place that businesses had a hard time sustaining,” she says. “Now, it appears to be growing at a slow but steady pace and an inspiring amount of businesses have are continuing to decide to take that leap, get creative, and get in on the action. People are starting to see the positive impact of investing more care, money, and time in our downtown.”
While the city’s current growth spurt has been out, not up, as nearby farmland has been turned into housing developments, there are a lot of buildings with good bones downtown, according to Gunnar Hand, an urban designer with architecture and planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Hand led a team that devised a new downtown plan for Bakersfield in 2016, in anticipation of the arrival of high-speed rail. They found the beginning stages of placemaking investments had already laid the groundwork for the nexus of new downtown development.
“This is, for lack of a better term, a third-tier city that’s only now coming around to urban revitalization,” says Hand. “Los Angeles is 20 to 30 years into revitalizing its downtown. Kansas City, [Missouri], my hometown, is 10 years in. Bakersfield is in, like, year one.”
Moving back and making a new start
When talking to Bakersfield residents who left town for college or careers and have now returned as older adults, affordability is a constant theme.
It helps in California to have housing that’s actually affordable. With a median home value of $241,000 as of last March, and median starter homes beginning at just $145,300 according to Zillow, it’s no surprise that the median age of a first-time buyer in Bakersfield is just 33. The city’s sprawling growth pattern has played a big role in creating cheap housing; as the city and metro region grew out, Bakersfield’s population ballooned from 70,000 in 1970 to more than 380,000 today.
According to NAR researcher Nadia Evangelou, these newly arrived millennials can afford to buy nearly 15 percent of homes currently listed for sale in Bakersfield, compared to only 4 percent in Los Angeles.
“Millennials still move to big metro areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco,” she says. “But we see that they don’t stay in these areas, because of weak affordability conditions.”
But the real draw goes beyond affordability. Cheaper housing enables many of the Bakersfield boomerangs to buy rather than rent, have a better quality of life, and start businesses, all of which might be unaffordable in other California cities.
For Jessie Blackwell, a cofounder of Dot x Ott, the seasonal restaurant and market just a few blocks from the 17th Place Townhomes, now is the perfect time to open a new kind of business in town. The restaurant, which opened last month, is taking advantage of the region’s wealth of farms and fresh produce in a way that just wasn’t really done here just a decade ago
“There’s a food movement here,” she says. “You can see it in the revitalization of downtown, and the handful of farm-to-table restaurants that have come to town. In the last five years, you’ve just seen this boom in farmers markets and so many more local options.”
Melissa Delgado is a product manager for an agriculture company who returned to town in 2011 after studying in San Diego. She found that the city, with its low cost of living, was perfect for growing her career. With the $2,000 or more she would be spending per month on rent elsewhere, she’s been able to buy a house.
“When I first came back here, I hated it,” she says. “I wanted to go right back to the city. But I’ve been able to grow my career here, and the style of living is just so much better.”
Daniel Cater, an architect and designer who recently returned to town with his wife three years ago, has found great opportunity since moving home (Smith hired him to design the townhome project).
“You’re beginning to see a city of half a million support innovation and change,” he says. “For me, it’s exciting to watch a city that hasn’t really found itself, where the entrepreneurial spirit is alive. It’s fun to be in a place where you can get to know the people making an impact, and make an impact yourself.”
Placemaking and the Padre Hotel
Most of the Bakersfield residents interviewed for this story noted that a lot of the new energy downtown comes from people who have returned after moving away, not a flood of new arrivals from other parts of the state or country. There’s still a relatively tight-knit circle of businesses and entrepreneurs in town, often built on local networks. Smith’s dad, for instance, is city Councilmember Bob Smith. And compared to the urban renaissances touted in other cities, Bakersfield’s new developments are not linked to any kind of broad apartment-building boom or big economic expansion yet.
But the catalysts for such change seem to be in place: Two local groups, Kern Economic Development Corporation, a traditional local business group, and Be In Bakersfield, a grassroots nonprofit that promotes new local businesses, have started marketing the city as a place of opportunity.
With some additional investments in transit and placemaking, Bakersfield also has the potential to truly activate its downtown. According to SOM’s Hand, when the firm studied the city in 2016, it found that much of the infrastructure for downtown growth was already finished or in the works. As part of a larger community redevelopment project, Bakersfield developed Mill Creek, a River Walk-style public space and linear park lined with theaters and new businesses. It opened in 2010.
Many of SOM’s suggestions—to create new transit links, connect the city’s already impressive bike lane network, and tie together disparate parts of downtown—have already been done or are in development.
“Our main suggestion was to create infill that brings together Mill Creek with the downtown core,” he says. “That’s already happening now, without the rail station being built.”
In addition to larger urban plans setting the table for more dense development, the successful redevelopment of the Padre Hotel also served as a marker and milestone for downtown. A landmark from the ’20s that reopened in 2010, the ornate hotel at 18th and H streets, a four-star property in the Central Valley, showed many that the city’s stock of old buildings held promise.
“The 17th Place Townhomes and the Padre Hotel are landmark projects for a town this size,” says Hand. “They signal something to the market that didn’t exist before, and it’s starting to snowball. There are local developers taking note.”
Continuing challenges to building a better Bakersfield
Bakersfield has gained momentum, but it still has a ways to go. Like many Central Valley cities, such as Merced, it’s pushing to diversify economically and build new industries, as well as regain the attention of state government after being ignored for many years.
As part of a larger demographic trend statewide, however, these Central Valley cities have seen more attention from new arrivals. Interior metros like Riverside, Fresno, and Sacramento have seen net domestic migration rise from 2012, when this region collectively lost 4,000 people, to 2017, when 38,000 arrived. At the same time, coastal parts of California have grown at a much slower pace, two-thirds less in 2017 than in 2012.
To capitalize on its growing population, Bakersfield’s economy needs to expand beyond health care, agriculture, and oil, and the region needs to invest in creating a more educated workforce. According to the Brookings Institution, among those ages 25 to 34 in the Bakersfield area, 29 percent are in poverty and only 14 percent graduated from college. The city’s persistent problems with air pollution, some of the worst in the state and nation, give potential residents pause.
“We have historically relied on cyclical industries like oil and agriculture, but the truth is, that’s not the future of where the world is moving,” says Anna Smith, a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian, and Austin’s wife. “We need to diversify, and bringing new minds here who have lived in other places is key to the 21st century.”
Anna Smith, like others, has pinned some hope on Newsom’s commitment to the Central Valley, including high-speed rail and other economic plans. Proposals at the local level, like Measure N, an initiative to revive state-funded community development, and a forthcoming update to the city’s general plan, could help finish out some of the placemaking plans SOM and others have proposed to knit together Bakersfield’s downtown.
“Newsom has the opportunity to show us that he can make connections here,” says Smith.
Coming back to feel more connected
The small cadre of new businesses, and Bakersfield residents returning home, suggests a similar story—like those in places like Memphis, Tennessee, or Louisville, Kentucky—is starting to play out. Bakersfield hasn’t had a downtown boom, at least not yet, but the seeds have been planted.
As Debbie Lewis, the wealth manager, suggests, there’s a hunger among young adults to make a mark on their environment.
“They don’t just want to be one of the millions of people swallowed by social media and all the reminders that we’re broke and don’t have any money,” she says. “All that negativity is pushing people to connect with a place and make a difference, and I think that’s possible here in Bakersfield.”
Or, as Anna Smith suggests, affordability isn’t the entire answer, it’s just the beginning. Without the pressure to pay for increasingly high rents, having more time to focus on passion projects and community engagement makes a real difference.
“If you want to say it’s just about affordable housing, that’s not all there is the Bakersfield,” she says. “Young professionals can come here, start a business, and find lower barriers to entry. Most importantly, they can feel connected to the community and make a real impact.”
Published On March 25, 2019 – 11:58 AM Written By The Business Journal Staff
A new California organization has been formed to help investors and developers take advantage of federal Opportunity Zones.
CalOZ “will promote competitive, equitable and sustainable Opportunity Zone investments in California,” according to a release from the organization.
“Our state must embrace new strategies to rebuild an upward economy that works for all Californians,” said Kunal Merchant, president and Co-Founder of CalOZ. “Opportunity zones offer an important new tool, not only to promote economic mobility and the green economy in areas of our state that need it most, but also to re-evaluate and re-imagine how business, government, and community work together to foster a more competitive, equitable and sustainable economy in California.”
In President Donald Trump’s 2016 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, he outlined what was labeled Opportunity Zones, which offered tax breaks on capital gains for investments in distressed areas.
In Fresno, a number of the areas were established, including the Kings Canyon and Blackstone avenue corridors.
On average, Opportunity Zones have a poverty rate of nearly 31 percent with families making 59 percent of the median income for the area, according to the release, citing information from Economic Innovation Group.
“Opportunity zones offer an intriguing new pathway for our state to expand our middle class and restore the California Dream for all residents,” said Ashley Swearengin, Central Valley Community Foundation’s CEO and former Mayor of Fresno. “I’m thrilled to see CalOZ showing leadership on this issue and excited to support their work both in the Central Valley and state as a whole.”
CalOZ’s first priority will be coordinating with the state to create “high-impact” policies in addition to the ones being offered by the federal government. The plan is to create a “triple-bottom line mindset” for social, environmental and financial opportunities, according to the release.
“With more than three million Californians residing in opportunity zones, California can and must seize the chance to deploy an unprecedented source of private capital into the communities that need it most, “ said Jim Mayer, President and CEO of California Forward. “We’re proud to partner with CalOZ to support state and local action to ensure California emerges as a national leader in this program.”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury certified more than 8,700 qualified areas throughout the country. Of those, California has around 10 percent within its boundaries. And Fresno County is ranked third in terms of having the largest designated Opportunity Zones, according to Merchant.
Those designations will last through the end of 2028.
It’s no secret the number of super commuters – those poor people who trek more than 90 minutes each way to work – is steadily on the rise in California.
Modesto, Stockton and the San Bernardino metro areas were already super commuting hubs 12 years ago. A recent report by Apartment List shows it’s still on the rise – and the commuters often make more money than their neighbors.
The report shows wide variations in pay for those who telecommute or travel long distances for work compared with people who are employed nearby. The implication is that high-earning workers could drive up the cost of living in less-expensive areas, spreading affordability issues
Super commuters exist across the country but the prevalence is heavier in California. They can earn as much as 20 percent more than their neighbors in Stockton and 18 percent more in Modesto.
With 11 percent of its full-time workforce traveling nearly three hours for work, the Stockton area is the super commuting capital of the United States. Modesto was ranked a close second with 8 percent of its workforce doing the same.
The phenomenon is one of two parallel trends driven by the housing market in the Bay Area, said Chris Salviati, an economist for Apartment List in San Francisco. He said as rents and home prices grow further out of reach, more people look elsewhere to live but continue working in the Bay Area since there are so many high-paying jobs.
“You’ve got a lot of people that are doing quite well by conventional standards, earning six-figure salaries, but in this area that’s just not enough for them to be able to live close to the downtown areas,” Salviati said.
On the other end of the spectrum are construction workers who also travel long distances for work. But in Northern California, Salviati said the Bay Area housing crisis is more to blame. In San Francisco proper, rent growth is flattening a bit but there’s much faster growth in the outer areas, Salviati said.
“Given that these folks are coming at a higher point on the income range, they are going to be putting more pressure on the upper end of the housing supply,” Salviati said.
A California computer scientist is set to compete for millennial dollars right here in Visalia.
Computer scientist Aamir Farooqui plans to open a 1,800 square-foot, fully-automated convenience store, similar to Amazon Go.
Based in Sacramento, Farooqui says his new concept store is the first of its kind in the Central Valley. He hopes to duplicate it elsewhere, he said.
An automated convenience store relies on computers and robotics. Amazon calls it “just walk out” shopping.
The new Visalia store will be built at 707 S. Bridge St., in the middle of the city.
Currently, it’s a vacant lot sandwiched between a second-hand store and homes. Farooqui bought the vacant parcel last year.
The developer is seeking a conditional-use permit from the city for the new store.
“In our model, we will be using new type of vending machines equipped with WiFi and cameras,” Farooqui said. “People can buy merchandise using cash (after converting to gift cards), credit or debit cards or through a mobile app. At the store opening, we plan to give away 100 free gift cards to our first customers.”
These kinds of stores have taken off in Europe where they go by the names of SmartMart and RoboMart. Farooqui says he has yet to choose a name for the Visalia location.
He hopes to open as soon as possible.
Not having on-site employees will allow the business to save money although it may take shoppers a little time to get used to a new routine using technology.
“Our goal is simply to reduce the cost of running a store for small businesses and at the same time offer 24-hour convenient service to the local community.”
Amazon’s model is simple.
“You simply walk in, grab what you need, and go. Amazon bills your credit card as you pass through the turnstile on your way out,” he said. “Moments later, an app on your phone provides a receipt detailing what you’ve bought, what you paid, and even how long you spent inside.”
Grocery stores are automating the shopping experience led by Walmart and Sam’s Club. The Visalia Walmart is installing more automated check-out devices and Sam’s Club wants to allow shoppers to scan products by holding their smartphones over a product, without having to find and capture a barcode on the package.
Microsoft is said to be developing technology that can track what shoppers add to their carts.
Meanwhile, Target is changing item pickup service at the stores with Pickup Towers, making the in-store process automated.
Bitwise Industries is teaming up with Fres-Yes realty company and expanding to a new location in Downtown Fresno.
It will be located at the Old Spaghetti Factory building on Ventura and R Streets.
The building will be the third location for Bitwise, which already has South Stadium Van Ness and The Hive.
The second story of the new building, called “Bitwise 41,” will eventually have a team of 150 FresYes agents working there.
Organizers say they hope the new location will inspire other businesses to come to Downtown Fresno.
“So I think the exciting part as far as visibility goes you can’t get more visible than this building right here. 41 is directly behind me. North and south. 45,000 cars going each way. It is a prime location for just visibility alone,” said Channelle Charest with Bitwise.
Bitwise 41 is expected to be ready to occupy in April.