Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Little Kabul" Docudrama Proposed

As a board member of the Afghan Coalition I try to raise funds for their important work, especially as it relates to Bridge Building. Habib Zargi, a fellow board member and director of Lemar TV, has provided great media coverage to co-sponsored Bridge Building/Afghan Coalition events such as our interfaith meetings and the museum bus trips. As a result of our working together I thought of a way to raise funds and expand the audience of Lemar TV while promoting the concept of "Little Kabul" tourism in Centerville. I recently fleshed out the idea of producing a docudrama in a grant proposal to the Irving Foundation. Then I applied for a matching grant to the Knight Foundation. The initial application for their "community information needs" grant had 4 questions, each of which required answers with less than 250 characters, so it forced me to simplify and focus. Here is what I wrote:
1. What is the project?
To empower local Afghan-Americans to produce "Little Kabul," a reality-based docudrama tracking proposed development of a world-class attraction (to tap into the huge SF Bay Area tourist market) without offending the host community of Fremont.

2. What is the information need that the project is addressing?
Fremont citizens need to regard Afghan refugees as an asset, not a threat. Local Afghans need to avoid civic isolation and proactively engage the larger community to correct post-9-11 stereotypes and demonstrate their benefit as fellow citizens.

3. What geographic area will the project serve?
Alameda County, CA, hosts the largest concentration of Afghan refugees in the USA (30-50K). This docudrama will be broadcast regionally on Lemar TV, a weekly cable public service program primarily for Afghans, but accessible to all Comcast customers.

4. What will be different in the community as a result of this project?
First would come increased political understanding and civic engagement by the Afghan community, especially the younger generation. Then the larger community of Fremont would gain an entertaining and educational program about life in "Little Kabul."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Binary-Star Tourism Industry for Fremont

Tourism revenue makes sense in economically-challenging times. When the dollar is weak foreign tourists are drawn to San Francisco, but they rarely cross the bridges to the East Bay. What is there to see? Bus tours go to Monterey and Napa, but not to Fremont. When Americans cannot afford to vacation abroad, they patronize attractions within driving distance. However, there are no vacation destinations in Fremont for Northern Californians. Is it possible for Fremont people to think outside their box?

Early this month (April 2009), City Manager Fred Diaz addressed a monthly gathering of Fremont pastors to address the subject, "Fremont after the A's." (Personally, I'm not a baseball fan; my lyrics to "Amazing Grace" after the baseball strike were: "Amazing Greed, How sour the game that baseball has become; I will not patronize that game, I will not take my son.") When the A's turned away, some in Fremont were disappointed and others were relieved, but at least the process stretched everyone. Maybe it is possible to think big and revitalize Fremont's economy.

Among the flow of details covered by the city manager in his talk, two other items caught my attention. Diaz mentioned that the development partner for Blake Hunt dropped out of the project approved for the Centerville Unified site (the 6.6 acres on Fremont Blvd between Thorton and the pioneer cemetery). Diaz's other story concerned the new water park due to open next month. He first resisted the plan and ordered a second feasibility study which independently verified the original prediction of success. Now good advance sales and high anticipation welcome the water park. Fremont has stuck its toes in the waters of local tourism.

I work from Centerville Presbyterian Church, so I own the concerns of many to preserve the Centerville identity. Yet because I build bridges to the new arrivals, I also know a lot about the local Afghans and their aspirations. The Afghans didn't invent the term "Little Kabul"—the media coined the phrase after 9-11—but the Afghans appreciate the honor of such a title. I believe Afghan refugee/entrepreneurs in the 80's were attracted to blighted Centerville as an affordable start-up business zone, and now leveraging the "Little Kabul" brand name can bring prosperity back to the area. But many long-term residents fear the Centerville identity will be usurped by the new moniker. The focal point of this concern seems to be the historic theatre on Fremont Boulevard, currently sandwiched between Afghan and Pakistani restaurants. But I think the solution is to think bigger than just the thespian agenda. Think global tourism.

The binary-star tourist attraction emphasizes the "+" in "Little Kabul PLUS Centerville." It would be Disney-quality scaled to the anticipated regional tourist market. Such a radical makeover would likely involve bulldozing most of Fremont Blvd. around the historic theatre (including the old—but hardly landmark—fire station) and starting fresh. The whole area going south from the train depot to Parrish Avenue would become the showcase of Historic Centerville, built around the theatre with appropriate themes and amenities. The "Little Kabul" themed area would arise on the aforementioned Unified Site, which city officials already bulldozed in anticipation of something good. I've talked with current owners such as Baretta Property Management and Dale Hardware who would need to be partners in the transformation of the entire region. But it would all have to be planned and managed by experts in the tourism industry, under contract with the city and private property owners. To bring this down-to-earth for nuts-and-bolts discussions would require a preliminary feasibility study.

The first step is to be open to the idea that a Fremont tourism industry is thinkable. I recommend that the Redevelopment Agency work session on April 21, 2009 recommend to the City Council that they explore this idea with tourism consultants who can properly execute a preliminary feasibility study. Such a study would take into consideration the existing SF Bay Area tourism traffic and the likely percentage of tourists drawn across the bridges by this binary star attraction. I have tried to anticipate many of the issues and objections and address them in previous blog articles, so these should be read before any serious, thoughtful criticism. Don’t dismiss this American dream.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Little Kabul" Email to My Afghan Friends

Here is a report on the issue of “Little Kabul” and the meeting on Wednesday, July 16, 2008 concerning the ongoing General Plan development of the City of Fremont. This was one of a series of meetings reporting on the City’s General Plan progress and getting feedback and new ideas from the public. This was not a meeting specifically about “Little Kabul,” but some of us are persistently and graciously promoting this new vision of the future. This sees the Centerville district being upgraded into a world-class tourist destination using both the brand names of “Little Kabul” and “Centerville.” Obviously, Afghan-Americans must participate in this whole process in order to convince the skeptics that this idea can bring prosperity and honor to Fremont.

Special thanks must be given to Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, president of Cal State East Bay, who has participated since the first community meeting last year. In spite of his extremely busy schedule Dr. Qayoumi has made this issue a priority. I feel his comments and endorsement last night provided tremendous credibility to the “Little Kabul” tourist concept. Another Afghan speaker that carefully added a few encouraging words was Bilal Murtaza, one of the first Afghans to relocate to Fremont decades ago. His brief comments focused on sharing appreciation for all the City of Fremont has done for Afghans. His hope is that a “Little Kabul” tourist development would return prosperity and blessing to Fremont.

Besides the three of us who shared a few minutes during the “question & answer” time for public feedback, there were a few other Afghans whose presence strengthened our comments. Everyone had to patiently sit though hours of unrelated details since the meeting covered four sections of Fremont Blvd., and the “Little Kabul” issue belonged only to the Centerville section (number 3 on the agenda). But seeing the big picture can open up new ideas, for after the Centerville presentation the architectural consultants presented the “Decoto Section” which revealed a huge piece of property, formerly reserved for the Highway 85 bypass. (CalTrans released their control of the property since their plans for 85 changed.) This undeveloped lot could be an even better location for a “Little Kabul” development, thereby freeing all of Centerville district for the “Historic Centerville” tourist development. There is also a creek (currently in an underground culvert) which could be landscaped with naturally flowing water to add to the beauty of the Decoto site. This expands the possibilities for all kinds of developments, as the consultants demonstrated. But back to “Little Kabul” and my comments:

After the Centerville presentation, which included ideas like redesigning Fremont Blvd from 4 lanes to 2 lanes (to create conditions like downtown Palo Alto) I jumped in to present the “Little Kabul Plus Centerville” tourism development vision. I started off emphasizing my connection with the historic Centerville Presbyterian Church, the keepers of the Pioneer Cemetery (with many names of Fremont streets on the gravestones). Here are the points I hope I made:

    1. The idea of creating a world-class tourist attraction is not at all like the current “Little Kabul.” The vision requires re-designing from the ground up at Disneyland-type quality.
    2. This is not a “Little Kabul versus Centerville vision.” The plan is “Little Kabul PLUS Centerville,” which I call the binary-star tourist attraction.
    3. There is a need to pursue feasibility studies to determine that it is realistic to attract a sufficient number of tourists from San Francisco. Frequent bus tours of tourists go south to Monterey and north to Napa, so why not east to Fremont?
    4. The site plan would be along Fremont Blvd., divided by the train depot and Pioneer Cemetery. From the tracks to the south all the way to Central Ave. would be“Historic Centerville” (looking like the Old West section of Knott’s Berry Farm). The “Little Kabul” section would be built north from the Cemetery to Thorton Ave (unless the scale of the anticipated tourist market would suggest the Decoto lot—a new idea).
    5. A Business Interest District (BID) could be created to investigate and champion this vision. Other cities have employed BIDs to refine and promote vital change.
    6. Such a vision, properly researched and planned, would revitalize the economy of Fremont and “put the center back in Centerville.”

I tried to get all those points across in just a few minutes. I think the architect who made the presentation on Centerville was frustrated that I basically ignored their work and cast a whole new vision. Nevertheless, Mayor Wasserman and councilmember Anu Natarajan were present, with 3 members of the planning commission and numerous City staff members. Besides the three of us that spoke to the “Little Kabul” tourist idea, no one else mentioned it or said anything against it. I think for many this was the first time they heard the idea. So we planted some seeds, and we need to figure out how to water them.

Here are some next steps:

    1. Go to the City of Fremont’s web page about the general plan:
      Here you can sign up for email updates and see the results of their survey, etc.
    2. Fill out online survey (but note that the survey doesn’t mention “Little Kabul,” or tourism. It does use terms like “cultural diversity” and economic development).
      Note: You don’t have to give your contact info to take the survey. If you do there is some further info they want, including “native language.” Only 2 of the 694 respondents (as of 7/17/08) selected “Persian (Farsi).”
      Question 6 allowed only one “focus” out of 6 choices. So I chose “other” and wrote in “Focus on both historic past AND cultural future,” because I don’t think it should be an either-or choice. I could have written “Little Kabul PLUS Centerville” but I kept my wording generic. Most of those who took the survey were long-term residents of Fremont and most also selected preserving historic identity as a priority.
    3. Let me know if you want me to keep you updated on this issue. I am also very involved in promoting the Sister City arrangement between Fremont and Kabul, so I’ll let you know about developments on that issue as well.

Thank you for reading this far in my long email. I hope what I shared is helpful.

Bruce Green
Bridge Building Facilitator

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What I Wish I'd Said to the City Council

I attended a Fremont City Council meeting on March 18, 2008 where the future of the "Unified Site" was discussed. Read the online report of the Fremont Bulletin which summarizes it well: Centerville Unified site starts from scratch again. Before the City Council discussion, cards were passed out for any community members who wished to speak. I didn't fill out a card because I am not a Fremont resident and I felt very alone with what was on my heart to say. So I just listened to the interaction, but my heart was burning with a message. Here is what I would have said if given the opportunity to speak.
Honorable Mayor Wasserman and City Council members, staff, developers, and community members…

A common frustration was aptly summarized by Mayor Wasserman when he referred to the eight years of Unified Site dead-end discussions as "whipping a dead horse." He also made an appeal for fresh new ideas. I would like to suggest a new fresh horse, capable of pulling the Centerville "cart" into a prosperous future.

Once I received a pearl of vocational advice: "Don't just do something you can do; Find a job doing something that ONLY you can do." Following this advice led to my current strategic work as "Bridge Building Facilitator," building better understanding between Muslims and Christians. So how does this pearl of advice apply to the Unified Site? "Don't just do something you can do with this site" (retail, housing, mixed use, park, etc.). "Do something that ONLY the City of Fremont can do…" And what are the unique factors that ONLY apply to this site?

I see two unique factors working together. To emphasize the synergy and potential of these two components I would name the new horse "Binary Star" and the cart is "Tourism." Only Fremont offers the world these two attractions: Little Kabul and Centerville. Taken apart they could be seen as competitive identities, but working together as complementary brand names they could revitalize a blighted area and attract thousands of Bay Area tourists.

A recent chapter of Centerville history could tell of a community that welcomed Afghan refugees starting in the 1980's. Centerville's economic blight of those days made it attractive for enterprising Afghans to start businesses. It is a refugee success story which is still being written. The future chapters could include how the "Little Kabul" identity was welcomed alongside "Historic Centerville" as the "binary star" economic engine that transformed and revitalized this district.

How could this look? The primary tourist showpiece, built on the 6.6 acres of the Unified Site, would capitalize on the branding of "Little Kabul." A developer/management partnership would need to oversee the whole region, including the Centerville section located along Fremont Boulevard from the train station to Parrish Ave. Obviously this would require the cooperation and partnership of the several property owners in this business district. The Centerville tourist development would preserve some historic sites (like the theatre), but most of the area would be completely rebuilt on the themes of Old California.

For now a possible action could be for the City to commission scientific studies of the feasibility and scope of developing a world-class tourist attraction in Centerville. I would suggest commissioning Economic Research Associates (ERA, ) to do this study and also form a Business Interest Distict (BID, see Wikipedia on BID ) to encourage the participation of all the affected property owners. Perhaps if the City cannot justify the estimated $60,000 for ERA to do a preliminary feasibility study, then the BID partners can finance this step.

As a final word, I hope you will take action and not repeat the mistake of my friends in Bahrain where I worked in the 1980's as a tourism consultant. Bahrain had the opportunity to develop as the tourist/stopover destination in the Persian Gulf. They hesitated and now Dubai fills that role and Bahrain is playing catch up.

Thank you for hearing me on this "binary star" tourist attraction. I hope you will consider this vision and do something that only Fremont can do. It would bring positive attention to Fremont if the city officials were to even consider this possibility. Fremont could be known as the city which honored displaced Afghans and prospered as a result.

Friday, July 6, 2007

My Appeal to a Centerville Businessman

To describe my "Little Kabul + Centerville" vision, I recently sent the following (slightly modified) email to an important Fremont businessman:

Thanks for responding to my note and giving me a call. I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Centerville Business and Community Association (CBCA) breakfast. I spoke the previous meeting and it was interesting how you dovetailed without knowing what I said about developing a world-class tourist attraction. I am interested in hearing your insights about past ideas or attempts to develop a tourist attraction in Centerville.

I thought you might like a summary of what I shared to the CBCA. The main point is to transform Centerville and leverage the “Little Kabul” name in order to tap into the tourism market of the Bay Area. I am proposing radical renewal, a total transformation, utilizing the skills of companies like DreamWorks and Economic Research Associates. First let me give you some personal background.

Bridge Building has been going on for 4 ½ years now and has been well-received by the local Afghans. As a “bridge building facilitator,” I work on both sides of the culture gap, which is why I also spoke to the CBCA group. My ability to work well with Muslims comes from several years I spent in the Middle East as a tourism consultant in the mid-80’s located in Bahrain, near Saudi Arabia. That is how I became interested in Islamic cultures and it helped prepare me for what I do now in Bridge Building, but I still have an eye for developing tourism. That story is better told with pictures, so please see my slideshow [now located above, right side of this blog]. Without belaboring the point, if Bahrain would have listened to me in the 80’s they would be where Dubai is today as an international tourist attraction.

So much for background leading to my idea regarding developing Centerville into a major Bay Area tourism destination. You are a major property owner with deep roots and broad experience in the Fremont area, and I would value your feedback and consideration. The gist of the idea is summed up in the motto:

Little Kabul + Historic Centerville = Prosperity & Peace

I am well aware of the tension in the community regarding the fear of imposing the “Little Kabul” identity on the Centerville district. But I believe this is a false dichotomy, an unnecessary and unhelpful juxtaposition of Little Kabul versus Centerville. My challenge to the CBCA was to recognize that the hated “Little Kabul” name can be turned to an economic advantage for the area. Fremont should leverage the “Little Kabul” branding (invented by the media, not the local Afghans—although Afghans like it, of course). Astute business and community leaders should recognize that the “Little Kabul” identity can inspire a world class tourist attraction, and not at the expense of Centerville, in fact quite the opposite. My idea is for a binary-star tourist attraction, with the 6.5 acre “unified site” controlled by the city being developed into the brightest attraction with “Historic Centerville” being the second star of this binary-beautification. The Historic Centerville section would be developed along Fremont Blvd. south from the train Depot to (at least) the theatre. I told the CBCA group that no matter how they buff and shine the Centerville identity—and I’m all for showcasing it—by itself Centerville will never tap into the huge tourism market in the San Francisco area. Yet properly designed and marketed, “Little Kabul” can be the engine that pulls the Centerville economic train.

There is a convergence of several factors that make this binary-star tourist attraction possible:

  • Firstly, current US involvement with Afghanistan can bring the spotlight of positive global attention on this project. All humanity cries out for such positive models of peacemaking. The “peace” component of the above motto highlights this project as an example of how refugees can be welcomed as an asset within their host community. This is not a politically-correct anti-war concept of peace; instead “Little Kabul + Centerville” is a proactive model of positive peacemaking which transcends politics.
  • Secondly, potential investors were not inspired by past quaint mixed-use plans for the unified site. They know such tepid redevelopment will not lift Centerville out of the economic doldrums. Circumstances have forced the City of Fremont to go back to square one in thinking about this strategic site. You know all about this and spoke to this point yourself.
  • Thirdly, the City of Fremont is in the process of gathering community input for the updating of their general plan. This is a good time for visionary thinking. I attended two recent city-sponsored community meetings and planted the seeds of this vision.
  • Fourthly, Cal State University East Bay just installed Dr. Qayoumi as their new president, and I have shared this vision with him and he is now a champion of the concept. The university should be a partner in developing components such as a museum and historical diorama, and Qayoumi can collaborate with the government of Afghanistan for top exhibits and scholarly assistance.
  • Fifthly, the global success of the book, The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini is another factor that could be leveraged, especially considering Khalid’s connection with DreamWorks, the producer of the movie due to be released early November. Khalid can be the bridge to the decision-makers at DreamWorks. I talked with him briefly and gave him a DVD of my brief presentation at a City of Fremont general plan community meeting.
  • Sixthly, DreamWorks offers the creative expertise to develop some of the main components. Consider a 360º 3-D theatre with an original film overview of Afghanistan, flying over the mountains (icy wind blows on audience) to viewing a Buskashi game from the back of a horse on a thundering gallop (as the floor shakes). Or how about a 3-D topographical diorama of the Central Asian region with interactive history. Press a button to see the route of Alexander the Great; press another button for Ghengis Khan; press another one for more recent military history (Soviet defeat and Taliban battles), and so on.
  • Seventhly is the possible participation of Economic Research Associates, one of my affiliate companies from the 80’s, and the premier consultancy group involved for decades in global and regional tourist attractions and markets.

Those are some positive factors, but there are hurdles to overcome. In order to join hands with the Centerville business community certain questions must be answered. For example, when I spoke at the CBCA meeting there were several comments and questions raised. I tried to give them answers, but the best response will require further study and proper and legal answers. Here are some questions that deserve further study. I’m sure you have more, and can better refine these, but here they are for a start:

Question: Why is only one ethnic group being singled out for this honor? Answer: There is abundant opportunity within the “Historic Centerville” section to tell the stories of all the various ethnic groups that have blessed Centerville over the years. However, as important as these stories are, at the present time none of them have the potential to become a world-class tourist attraction like “Little Kabul.” There is also “The Globe” business development in South Fremont which provides more ethnic balance and business opportunity in the region.

Question: Will this provide an unfair business advantage to Afghans? Answer: “Little Kabul” will not be an Afghan-exclusive business zone. Ownership by the City of Fremont should ensure that a balanced opportunity will be provided to all qualified business partners and investors. Obviously, certain characteristics of Little Kabul will require Afghan partnership (restaurants, import shops, entertainment, etc.), but other components must be professionally managed by educational and creative institutions (museum, 360º theatre, diorama, etc.).

Question: Why is Centerville taking a back seat to Little Kabul? Answer: Centerville is like a mother that gave birth to a child prodigy. It is to Mom’s benefit to nurture the gifted child and in so doing honor and prosperity comes to the whole family. Afghan entrepreneurs came to Centerville because of the economic downturn in the 80’s; it was a hospitable business district because it cost less to get started. Centerville can now receive a great benefit from hosting Afghan refugees and become an example for the world to notice.

Question: Won’t utilizing historic Islamic architecture and design make it appear to be a religious site? Answer: Careful study needs to be done to design an inviting and hospitable appearance attractive to the broadest spectrum of the population and tourists. Correct marketing will be able to attract the curious as well as the cautious, to insure this will be a safe place to explore an exotic and distant land and culture. The primary emphasis will be on educational entertainment, with some fantastic eating and shopping opportunities.

Question: Isn’t 6.5 acres a small piece of property for such a big “world-class” vision? Answer: This must include more than just the unified site, but that would be the location for the star “Little Kabul” attractions. The whole commercial region needs to be involved—that is why there is a “Historic Centerville” section—and development will likely expand incrementally as success and prosperity happens. Centerville Presbyterian Church owns some adjacent land, and they recently moved some graves in the pioneer cemetery in anticipation of future development. I’ve even proposed building an attractive protective canopy over the cemetery in the form of a multi-storey parking garage.

Jennifer Andersen, the Centerville Redevelopment Project Manager, has a decent webpage: Centerville Redevelopment Projects. Jennifer told me that they will be accepting new proposals from qualified developers starting within the next few weeks. So these are the days to take action, when the proverbial “window of opportunity” is wide open. So I hope this concept is significantly different than the ideas that didn’t work in the past. May this vision stimulate your creativity as well as your informed guidance. As a primary landowner you have great influence and an unprecedented opportunity to revitalize Centerville, contribute to our homeland security, and profit in the process.

Bruce Green, Bridge Building Facilitator