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University office wins award for community work

Fresno State’s office of community and economic development won the Excellence in Community Connected Award this year for all the work its San Joaquin Valley Rural Development Center has done in providing technical assistance for public agencies in small and underserved communities by connecting them with experts.

The award, which was presented at the University Economic Development Association annual summit on Sept. 29 in Anchorage, Alaska, recognizes top university-based economic development initiatives in the country.

Along with other finalists such as Indiana University, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and University of Alaska Anchorage, members of the community and economic development program at Fresno State were invited to outline their mission for the development center and what they plan to do in the future.

Award committee members and summit attendees evaluated each of the finalists on a number of things, including: replicability, scalability, sustainability, originality, impact and overall quality of responsiveness of presentations.

The development center’s mission is to collaboratively build relationships with those living in rural communities and help open doors and get them connected with professionals who can help educate them with everything from starting a business and learning to manage their money to understanding how the stock market works and the best ways to save for retirement.

The center’s four main services include: technical assistance, resource facilitation, direct services and capacity building.

Technical assistance deals with teaching individuals or small business how finances and local food systems work. In resource facilitation, the center focuses on referring individuals to one or more of its consortium partners such as Fresno State.

The direct services deal heavily with helping with grant writing, website development and economic development strategies and capacity building helps with small business development and grant writing training.

Ismael Diaz Herrera, director of the San Joaquin Valley Development Center, who also serves on the Mendota Unified School District board of trustees, said his No. 1 goal is to help those who don’t have the means to get ahead in business and just in life, in general.

“We kind of became the eyes and ears to some of these small communities, and we still are to a large extent,” Herrera said. “We find people out in those rural communities that need help in an area that maybe is out of our expertise, and through this rural development center, we can refer them to a network of one of our on-campus partners and also our off-campus partners.”

Herrera said he often gets calls from small business owners or those aspiring to own their own business with issues dealing with water and will usually pair them up with organizations who specialize in that field.

“Maybe it’s an issue of water, and they have some water problems that they have to address and we will refer them to water experts at Fresno State, and if those folks can’t help them, we will try and find water agencies or water nonprofits who are doing work in the water area,” Herrera said.

Executive director Mike Dozier added that he and Herrera are not experts, but can link people with experts.

“We are not experts, but what we do is bring experts to the table,” Dozier said. “We have our own expertise that we work on, on a regular basis, but when it comes to water and wastewater, we bring in the experts, which are our partners. We don’t try to be everything to everyone, but we try to be everything to everyone through our partners.”

Herrera said even though the main purpose of the center is to serve as a referral network, he and Dozier and others also provide direct services.

“We also provide direct services through workshops and basically in areas that we can directly address ourselves,” Herrera said.

Dozier noted that the workshops take the form of a lecture where he and Herrera discuss in great detail the issue at hand and make sure everyone understands the solution or how to solve a problem if it occurs in the future.

“One of the things we do in the development center is teach them how to do these things rather than give them it or doing it for them,” Dozier said. “Even with the economic development strategies that we do, we are really giving them an understanding of what economic development is to begin with, and then they create their own strategy. We just hold their hand and bring them along.”

Herrera said that he is going to continue working to make the center better and hopes to make an impact with communities to help better people’s lives.

“We hope that people recognize the work we are doing and are going to want to help us with either grants or some kind of financial contribution,” Herrera said. “We have been fortunate that people have gotten word out about what we do and hope that others will want to support it. So far, it has been positive, but there is still a lot of work out there that needs to get accomplished.”

Eduardo Gonzalez, program manager at the San Joaquin Valley Development Center, said one of the great things about the center is that he and others can relate to their customers because they come from a rural community background.

“The great thing about it is that we get to work with rural communities in the eight counties including Kern County and San Joaquin County,” Gonzalez said. “I grew up in a small community so I can relate with those who live in those communities.”

Gonzalez added that he enjoys helping those who are in need and continues to think of more ways to better aid people living in rural communities in having a successful future.

“The thing I like the most is that it really focuses on helping underserved communities in a variety of ways to assist people in achieving their goals,” said Gonzalez.