Caress of the despots

Fresno Bee
Bill McEwen: Resnick wants to enhance Valley…
Bill McEwen
Lynda Resnick is a marketing whiz and one of America's richest women. She has mastered the art of moving bottled water, pomegranate juice, oranges and other products off of supermarket shelves.
Now she's tackling a bigger challenge: making a dent in the concentrated poverty that has saddled the San Joaquin Valley with a reputation as the Appalachia of the West.
Resnick might be this generation's highest-profile Valley advocate. She certainly has the connections to make politicians and foundations pay attention to our overlooked region and its daunting problems.
She and husband Stewart own Roll Global and are estimated to be worth $1.8 billion. A good chunk of their fortune has come from the Valley's fertile fields and the success of Paramount Farms.
"What I hope to give is a voice to the whole Valley," Resnick says. "Too many people have no idea about the Central Valley and the wonderful people here that deserve a chance."
The Resnicks, who live in Beverly Hills, long have been major donors to causes in Southern California.
One example: a $55 million pledge to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Lately they've extended the generosity. Paramount Farms gave $4 million to Children's Hospital Central California in 2006, and Lynda says the company will donate $1 million more to the hospital over the next five years.
Lynda's interest has grown beyond writing checks.
There is the Paramount Bard Academy, a charter school and teachers' program, in Delano. There's the Paramount Child Development Center in Avenal.
Renovation of a 7-acre park in the small Kern County community of Lost Hills, near Paramount's headquarters, was completed last month.
A cynic might say that the Resnicks are merely engaging in public relations or salving their guilty consciences.
Indeed, they have made enemies with their astute and ruthless maneuvering to control vast amounts of water necessary to grow highly profitable pistachios and almonds.
Stewart Resnick killed the Fresno-based California Pistachio Commission with a lawsuit challenging mandatory grower fees. And even though they often support liberal causes and politicians -- to the chagrin of conservative farmers -- some of their harshest critics are on the left. Author John Gibler, in a narrative about the Resnicks' relationship with Lost Hills, called the nearly 100% Hispanic community "a twenty-first century company town."
Lynda says she is championing the Valley out of respect for the work ethic in rural communities and because California needs a better-educated work force.
She speaks with passion and, if she is faking it -- well, she did so well enough to fool me.
"These workers will be coming from our local communities, and we need to figure out how best to prepare them for fulfilling and successful careers," Resnick says. "My dream, perhaps, is to create a high school and trade school that would enable students to get the technical information to get a middle-level job in agriculture."
The Lost Hills park project shows a hands-on approach to philanthropy that makes use of her marketing expertise. Resnick went in thinking that residents would want health-care assistance. She learned instead that they wanted the community park overhauled and made safe for families again.
The park, which had been deteriorating for years, was a haven for crime.
"We spent about 40 minutes with every household in Lost Hills to learn what they wanted for their community, and the park was the No. 1 thing," Resnick says. "They got to choose which things they wanted and they came up with a walking trail, volleyball courts, splash park, lights, and making the soccer fields and basketball courts playable.
"When the new park opened, it was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Now we're starting on providing sidewalks, gutters and landscaping for Lost Hills."
Resnick says her goal is to interest major foundations in the Valley and to attract grants for struggling communities. It helps that she is a board member of the Aspen Institute -- the Resnicks have a home in the Colorado resort city -- and the Milken Family Foundation. She hopes to convince other Valley companies to increase their giving.
"I gave one speech in September to a bunch of farmers," Resnick says. "I told them, you don't have to do what we're doing. Go to your school and ask what they need. It might be as simple as soccer uniforms.
"I hope to enlighten ag. I hope to enlighten oil. I hope to enlighten the solar and wind people. If more people in the Valley who are blessed got together and did something, we could make a difference.
"I hope I can make a difference."
With Resnick on the record about being a champion for the Valley, it'll be interesting to track the difference she makes.
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