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.