Ed Tessier grew up watching downtown Pomona die.
As businesses fled, his attorney father, who owned real estate in the city's decaying central shopping district, stubbornly kept his office there. Young Tessier would prowl the pedestrian mall after school, breaking into abandoned buildings to play shop.
In his fantasy world, downtown Pomona was not a bleak landscape of empty streets and boarded-up buildings. It was a thriving place with an ice cream shop here, a comic bookstore there, crowds of strollers having fun.
Most people never realize their fantasies. But most people are not Ed Tessier, a quadriplegic who has surmounted one challenge after another in his 27 years. One of the first things Tessier did when he took over his family's commercial properties in 1992 was flout conventional wisdom and open a coffeehouse in the dying heart of downtown. Aptly christening their new place the Haven, Tessier and partner Ken Bencomo painted it vibrant yellow and purple, stocked it with used books, mocha java, live local music and art.
Flash forward three years to 1995. The Haven is now the epicenter of a downtown arts revival that is slowly taking shape from the ashes of downtown Pomona. More than 200 artists have gravitated to its industrial lofts and Art Deco buildings--many of them renovated by Tessier's firm. But that's only the beginning.
The city of Pomona has swung its muscle and money behind downtown with grants and new zoning that encourages residential artists lofts, entertainment and specialty retail shops. Although many storefronts still stand empty--and the city still wrestles with high crime, an eroding industrial base and racial tensions--an antique mall with 400 dealers is thriving and an osteopathic college with 950 students fills the streets with pedestrians from morning until night.
"We're building this neighborhood from scratch," Tessier said. "It's a raw landscape, you can do anything with it."
Once a jewel of a city whose wealth and history rivaled Pasadena, Pomona's reputation began to tarnish in the 1960s as businesses died or fled to new malls. Trouble accelerated in the '90s as high-paying, unionized jobs disappeared: Hughes Missile Systems Co., the city's second largest employer, pulled up stakes in 1992 and moved to Tuscon, taking 2,000 aerospace jobs. A glass container factory with 325 skilled workers closed last December. Strapped for cash and jobs, the city is pursuing controversial plans to open two card club casinos that could bring $10 million in tax revenues.
Conventional wisdom sends cities in search of new chain stores, factories and discount warehouses that translate into hundreds of jobs. Pomona has not abandoned that philosophy, but like many cities grasping for solutions to urban decay it is realizing that rebirth of downtown lies in attracting small, diverse grass-roots businesses instead of the Broadway and Home Depot.
"This is a manifestation of new thinking," said Frank Wykoff, professor of economics at Pomona College. "We used to think we needed to have a big department store, a hotel or grocery chain, but the best way to revitalize is a lot of new, smaller businesses. The best thing the public sector can do is make it feasible from a zoning perspective, then get out of the way."
And that is exactly what the city did, adopting a new downtown plan last year that allows mixed residential, office and commercial use. The plan makes it legal for artists to live in industrial spaces and lofts downtown, a tactic that more cities, including Los Angeles, have taken.
Serving as midwife to this urban experiment is Tessier, who whizzes along the pedestrian mall in his wheelchair greeting gallery owners, conferring with City Council members and squiring artists around in search of a loft space with good light.
"He fights City Hall single-handedly," said Janet O'Keefe, a college student who lived in a loft for several years. "He's put a lot of effort into trying to rebuild this area."
The key to Tessier's success is his ability to wear different hats.
In addition to landowner, he is also a city planning commissioner and president of the Central Business District. Last year, the moderate Democrat challenged Republican Rep. Jay Kim in the heavily Republican 41st District, but lost by a wide margin despite dogged campaigning because he was unable to muster much political or financial support.
In Pomona, Tessier puts his money where his mouth is by living downtown in an 1880s brick building he has converted into a homey loft. He has also brought in a mix of businesses owned by African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, women, disabled and gay entrepreneurs drawn by the cheap rents.
"This reminds me of what (San Francisco's) Haight-Ashbury must have looked like in the early 1960s before it blew up," said Richard DuPertuis, a computer graphic artist who works downtown.