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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Downtown Visionary : Civic leader Ed Tessier is only 27, but he’s a one-man dynamo for change and improvement in the business district.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ed Tessier is revered by Pomona’s city officials, punk artists and local business leaders alike for the work he has done to jump-start the stalled engines of downtown.

“He fights City Hall single-handedly,” said Janet O’Keefe, a college student who lived in a downtown Pomona loft for several years. “He’s put a lot of effort into trying to rebuild this area, at a time when the city would have much rather torn everything down and started over.”

Tessier sees downtown as a blank slate, providing a rare opportunity to try out his ideas for a mixed-use shopping, arts and entertainment district with the focus on small businesses and diverse merchants.

“We’re building this neighborhood from scratch,” Tessier said. “I don’t want to become another Claremont Village. Pomona’s marketing niche is to be a little alternative, a little off center, a little cutting-edge.”

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The 27-year-old Tessier wears many hats. He is a Pomona planning commissioner, president of the central business district and manager of his family’s development firm, Jeved Management Inc., which owns half a million square feet of commercial real estate in downtown Pomona.

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Last year the moderate Democrat challenged Republican Rep. Jay C. Kim for the heavily Republican 41st Congressional District. A virtual unknown who was unable to muster much financial support, Tessier lost by a hefty margin. But he met tirelessly with district voters, debated his opponent at community forums and put in hours on the phone to try to raise support for his underdog candidacy.

It hasn’t been his first big challenge by a long shot. The son of a lawyer who opened an office in downtown Pomona during its boom days, Tessier grew up “watching downtown fall apart. I’d walk around imagining a comic store here, an ice cream store there. I’d break into the empty stores and play shop.”

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At 16, a bodysurfing accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors thought he might regain some control of his muscles as his broken neck slowly healed without requiring surgery. But two months into his recovery, as Tessier was being moved to another hospital bed, a nurse’s aide accidentally dropped him, breaking his neck a second time. Tessier said he will now remain paralyzed for the rest of his life.

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But that sidetracked him only temporarily. Tessier enrolled in Pomona College, where he earned a degree in urban sociology and became active in fighting for the rights of the disabled. While still in school, he founded a nonprofit firm called Designs for Independence, which consulted with businesses, homeowners and schools on how to make buildings more accessible to people with disabilities.

Tessier would probably still be running his own consulting firm if his father hadn’t fallen ill in 1992 and asked him to oversee the family’s commercial properties.

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Tessier soon realized he had been handed an invitation to live out his utopian vision of what an urban center could be like.

What he envisions is a district that is more East Village than Crate & Barrel.

What he inherited was a jumble of run-down properties that were at 30% occupancy, mainly storefront churches and social service outlets. Using hard salesmanship, slashed rents and charisma, Tessier has drawn a mix of merchants to his properties in the last two years, attempting to build a community by leasing to small specialty shops, restaurants, galleries and services.

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Tessier has also made a conscious effort to woo a mixture of African American, Asian, Latino, disabled, gay and female-owned businesses. For many, downtown Pomona is their first venture into business, and they are lured by cheap rents and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could become the region’s newest Westwood.

These days, the effort to make downtown Pomona viable consumes all of Tessier’s time. He says he has been reading a lot of the writings of Jane Jacobs, the visionary urban planner whose seminal book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” advocates mixed-use areas where people can live, shop and work amid a thriving street life.

“You’re not actually supposed to be able to use a liberal arts degree, but mine’s come in very, very handy,” Tessier mused.

Today the Tessier properties are about 70% occupied and there is a waiting list for loft space, which is being rented out faster than Tessier can renovate it.

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He puts his money where his mouth is by living in a converted loft downtown that is next door to the Haven, a thriving coffeehouse he co-owns. No matter the weather, Tessier is a familiar sight on the sidewalk, whizzing along in his wheelchair.

Darrell George, Pomona’s new director of economic development, sees Tessier as a key player in the turnaround of downtown.

“He’s a very positive influence and force in the downtown business district. He brings to the table an optimistic point of view, and he’s willing to do what it takes to make a deal happen,” George said.

For instance, when Tessier heard that merchants were leery of starting up a new farmers market downtown, he arranged meetings between the city and the merchants and spent hours on the phone explaining why the effort would be good for them as well as for downtown.

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Then it was off to show a prospective tenant one of his art lofts that would soon be available in the old Pomona Progress Bulletin newspaper building, which Tessier’s firm is slowly restoring to its Art Deco grandeur.

“We stripped it down to the cement shell, took out the low ceilings, re-exposed the beautiful plate-glass windows,” Tessier told the artist.

“It’s a raw landscape,” he continued, in words that describe his building as well as the entire downtown. “You can do anything with it.”

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