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November 12, 2020

The Heartbeat of our Cities

It’s bright and early on a crisp fall morning, the sun just starting to peak over the foothills. I yawn as I drive my morning commute, heading down the 41 south with the rest of the 9-5ers on our way to the office. It’s easy to zone out between the lack of caffeine in my system and the drone of the morning news on my radio, but I perk up as I turn off on the Van Ness exit and begin to cruise into downtown Fresno.

There’s an older woman sweeping the sidewalk outside of her storefront, a young man jogging at a steady pace on the other side of the street. Folks in suits with a latte in one hand and a cell phone in the other, families taking a stroll together before their days begin. Strangers nod hello as they pass each other by. People grab a morning pick-me-up from the local fruit cart or cafe. Colorful murals, art pieces, and fountains line the street. I can’t help but smile as I look around. I can’t help but feel at home.

If you’d asked me 10 years ago what I thought about downtown Fresno, I would have told you I don’t spend a lot of time there. In fact, I didn’t willingly spend any time there. I thought it was an unknown, unusual, and frankly undesirable part of town. Growing up in Dinuba, Fresno was the “big city” for us, but downtown was never our destination. 

The past few years of working, exploring, and spending time in downtown Fresno have softened my perspective. Nestled in a soft triangle between the 99, 180, and 41 freeways, downtown can be easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. But if you take a chance (and take one of those freeway exits), you’ll find something special. You’ll find an authentic representation of our diverse community. You’ll find a vibrant community pulsing with life, culture, and pride. To put it simply … you’ll find downtown is the heartbeat of our city.

Bitwise is, and always has been, about downtown. It’s one of the things that drew me to the company, and one of the reasons I said yes when they offered me a job as a writer in early 2020. I had been working downtown since 2017, and quickly learned folks don’t have a very sunny disposition about this area of Fresno. There was always talk of revitalizing downtown, but at the end of the day, you can talk all you want about revitalization and renovation – or you can be one of the people actually doing something about it. And Bitwise was definitely doing something.

In 2013, Bitwise opened the doors of their first physical space in downtown Fresno’s Mural District. It was the beginning of so many things – changing lives through Geekwise Academy classes, tenants from diverse industries filling reinvented office spaces, and above all – a place for the entrepreneurial community to connect and collaborate. Fast forward a few years to the opening of a 50,000 square foot geek palace: Bitwise South Stadium. A former automobile dealership, the building had been abandoned for years before Bitwise took over ownership and began renovations. This historical part of downtown was transforming into a landmark for downtown Fresno’s next era – even including turning an old car ramp into a 160 seat theatre!

“It’s about keeping some of the history of our city intact, and taking what seemed like a waste of space and making it exciting,” shared Channelle Charest, Executive Director of Growth. “We wanted to give new life to places that have been forgotten and invest in a physical way in the geography of the area.” Pretty soon one building became two, and before you knew it, there were three fully-built out buildings rounding out Bitwise’s Fresno campus, with a fourth on the way.

But it was more than just renovating old warehouses and building offices. 

One of my first interactions with Bitwise was at an ArtHop, shortly after I started working in downtown Fresno back in 2017. I remember walking through South Stadium checking out the local art installation and vendors. There was an energy in the room I hadn’t experienced before, an atmosphere of folks proud to be a part of something downtown. And as I continued exploring downtown over the years, I found that same energy everywhere. The laughter among friends grabbing drinks at Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co. The cheers echoing from Chukchansi Stadium during a Fresno Grizzlies’ game. The crowds of people up and down Fulton Street during ArtHop. The pride of local business owners finally opening their brick and mortar dreams. Everyday was full of something that made me proud to call this city my home, and even more proud to be a part of the community breathing life into downtown.

Bitwise chose to put their roots in downtown Fresno because they believe downtown is the heartbeat of our city. 

And if downtown is the heartbeat of Fresno, then the people who have been working, living, and investing in it long before Bitwise are the lifeblood, continually pumping ideas, entertainment, and new opportunities out for the surrounding community. They are keeping this historic and important part of our city alive and intact, so that new folks can experience it every day.

“We are constantly working with nonprofits, small businesses, developers and local governments in downtown to make the best decisions for our neighbors in building a better downtown for all. We are creating and constantly adapting as downtown grows.”

– Chanelle Charest

Fresno is an Underdog City, loosely defined as a place with incredible potential and humans who, if given the opportunity and the resources, could achieve incredible things in the technology industry and beyond. In the same vein, Underdog Cities often come with underdog downtowns. “We have to be about what we talk about,” Channelle said. “And that means committing to physical locations that are overlooked and underserved.” 

Bitwise announced last year that they will be soon expanding beyond Fresno to new cities across the Central Valley. And just like Fresno, the new Bitwise campuses will be located downtown, in the heartbeat of their new cities.

Soon Bitwise will open the doors of a new Merced campus, located right on the main drag of downtown. Similar to Fresno, downtown Merced has an energy pulsing through its streets as it goes through a coming-of-age journey of it’s own.

“There’s something for everyone in downton Merced and there’s more going on than people might realize,” explained Sara Cribari Hill, Director Of People and Community Impact at El Capitan Hotel. “I hope our community pays close attention to downtown over the coming months to see all that’s changing and coming to our community.” The historic El Capitan Hotel is currently undergoing a $15 million renovation project, and will reopen in 2021.

Anthony Braxton, Interim Manager of Playhouse Merced, agreed with the excitement around downtown’s revitalization. “There was the renaming, then cityscaping, then the arts center opening and movie theater opening, then restaurants coming … and now the re-opening of El Capitan Hotel, Tioga apartments, and Mainzer!” 

I know that excitement all too well. It’s an incredible opportunity to not only watch, but work alongside this community as downtown Merced grows.

“I’ve watched how these projects have started to transform downtown. The day the Tioga sign was installed, I received numerous texts and calls. You can feel the pride coming back into our downtown.”

– Robin Donovan, Managing Director at El Capitan Hotel

And just down the 99 in the South Valley, you’ll find another downtown beating with excitement, full of eager anticipation of great things to come.

It’s impossible to not feel the heartbeat in downtown Bakersfield, whether you’re checking out the local cuisine or grabbing a cocktail at Tiki-Ko (a personal favorite). New and old businesses sit alongside each other, providing something for everyone, no matter what you’re looking for.

“We are inspired every day by the entrepreneurial spirit of people who own local businesses, support charitable causes, contribute to arts and culture, and give back to the community by adding their unique mark on the center of our city, and in turn – on the entire region,” said Austin and Anna Smith, co-owners of Sage Equities, located in downtown Bakersfield.

“Downtown is the civic front door for residents and newcomers,” Austin and Anna added. “It’s the welcome mat for visitors. It’s Saturday night out for residents living all over our city. It’s a home base for a growing number of businesses. It’s the innovative, creative and cultural hub. It affects the lives of people living all over the city like no other real estate.”

Bitwise is incredibly excited to partner with these amazing communities in our new expansion campuses in Merced and Bakersfield next year. Together, we hope to honor the efforts so far, and continue working to make sure each downtown is celebrated as the heartbeat of their respective city.

“The heartbeat of anything is something that should be protected and celebrated at all costs. When you love something, you want to enjoy it, you support it, and you are proud to be connected to it.”

– Shannon LaBare, Owner + Creative Director of downtown Bakersfield’s Purveyor Branding

One of my favorite downtown Fresno memories came just a few months after I started working downtown. My former office had these beautiful full length windows with a stunning view of the Pacific Southwest Building and Fulton Street. The sun was already setting, casting a golden glow over downtown. I remember looking out of that window, at this little corner of Fresno I’d come to love and treasure so deeply. I thought of the people who welcomed me into downtown with open arms, my favorite businesses and restaurants, fond memories of soccer games at Chukchansi and cold beers at Tioga. In that moment I remember thinking to myself, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Of course, these days downtown is quiet. COVID-19 has caused many places to close their doors, some temporarily and others permanently. But in the stillness, there’s a beauty and a pride in these streets – of work that’s been done, and work that will be done in the future. And if you, by chance, find yourself driving down the 41, take the Van Ness exit and cruise into downtown. Drive up and down the streets, no need to stop anywhere in particular. I promise if you pay close attention, you’ll feel a gentle heartbeat pulsing through the streets, ready to come back to life when we’re ready.

Leah Sadoian is a writer for Bitwise Industries, digital content creator, and Central Valley native. She primarily writes marketing material, website content, and narratives for the Bitwise Stories series. In her free time, Leah enjoys a cold IPA, Law and Order SVU reruns, and spending time with her cat, Marge.