Fresno’s ‘Economic Ambassador’ Lee Ann Eager Announces Retirement
One of Fresno’s biggest boosters is stepping down from her role at the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.
Lee Ann Eager — often described by colleagues as “Fresno’s economic ambassador to the world” — told GV Wire Monday that she is retiring as president/CEO of the public/private nonprofit. Aug. 4 will be her last day.
EDC Grew to a Multimillion-Dollar Operation
Fresno EDC Board Chair Nick Audino said the organization became one of the strongest in the state because of Eager’s work.
“What Lee Ann has done and what she’s been so good at doing is coordinating not only the economic development and attraction-side of the business, but also the retention and expansion side of the business,” Audino said.
Eager’s role as EDC leader goes back to 2009 at the height of the Great Recession. At the time, the EDC had a staff of eight and a budget of about $890,000, she said. It now operates with a staff of 25 and an annual operating budget of $8 million.
She was a major proponent of high-speed rail and was involved in courting the California High-Speed Rail Authority to locate its heavy maintenance facility in Fresno, which at the time promised as many as 2,000 jobs for the area.
Eager serves as co-chair of Fresno Works, an initiative to galvanize investments around high-speed rail in Fresno County.
Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Eager to the California Transportation Commission in June 2019, and she became the commission chair on March 1, 2022. Her term expires Feb. 1, 2024.
Related Story: Fresno’s Lee Ann Eager Is New Chair of State Transportation Commission
She also worked with then-Sen. Joe Biden on the first version of the Violence Against Women Act.
Logistics Footprint Expanded
At a meeting in Chicago in 2010, staff had met with representatives from beauty products giant Ulta and clothing brand Nordstrom Rack, Eager said. They told her that down the road, they were thinking about locating distribution centers in the Central Valley. She and staff members made a point of calling them monthly to see if they were ready to bring locations to the area.
Ulta opened its first distribution warehouse in California in 2017, hiring nearly 600 people. Nordstrom Rack never opened. Shortly after Ulta opened, City of Fresno staff worked to bring the first Amazon distribution center here, Eager said.
Those large employers are concerned with having available labor, said Audino. And part of what Eager did was to ready a workforce for those businesses, he said.
Workforce Training One of Eager’s Proudest Achievements
In 2013, a major employer considered the area but needed 200 people trained for the company’s line of work, Eager said. She went to the Fresno County Department of Social Services to see if that many people with the necessary skills were available.
The department didn’t have the people in their system, and the deal fell through, Eager said.
This drove her to create the New Employment Opportunity program, training people on government assistance for jobs, especially truck driving. The partnership between the EDC and Fresno County Department of Social Services is one of their most successful programs, getting thousands hired.
In August 2022, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the EDC $23 million from its Good Jobs Challenge, which will help train people for many different kinds of manufacturing jobs.
The creation of a workforce training center at the Fresno City College West Fresno Campus has been a dream of Eager’s for the past 12 years, she said. College officials will work with different businesses to ensure people are trained to have the skill sets that different businesses require.
Eager Wants County to Be Business Hub
“Nobody can replace Lee Ann in terms of her specific skill set and the impact she’s had on all of us who are involved in the EDC,” Audino said. “But we’re hoping to find somebody that has a vision consistent with Lee Ann’s.”
Eager said once Fresno County had all the tools to bring in new businesses and help it grow, she would begin looking at passing the torch. She said the best advice for the next EDC head would be to come up with great ideas and “jump in with both feet.”
“That’s the fun of what’s going to happen with this next 10 years,” Eager said. “And what else can we do? Bigger is better. Jump in with both feet and do it.”