Tulare entrepreneurs, city of Tulare work together as a private/public partnership to breathe “new life” into dilapidated downtown
TULARE – Bustling side walks, retail shops, packed restaurants, department stores and five and dimes were once the life of downtown Tulare. The atmosphere provided Tularians with everything they needed in their daily lives until something changed that left downtown more and more desolate.
Downtown Tulare has been less than vibrant in the past several decades. A new generation of Tularians have decided it is time to make a change and invest their time and money into the start of something they hope will be big. Fortunately the private sector is not alone. The city has also decided to put its best foot forward to initiate a long-term life plan for downtown Tulare to aid in the resurrection.
“I can remember on Saturdays going downtown with either my grandmother or grandfather and they would take care of their shopping and I would get all the five and dime stores to find model airplanes or boats and you could just wander,” Steve Harrell, Tulare city council member said.
Harrell believes it is possible for the downtown area to get some of its original form back and City Manager Marc Mondell said the downtown area has “good bones.” The only problem is there are several hills to climb for everyone involved.
“The downtown…has a great history and was fully functional at one time, but like many downtowns, it needs some new energy and new life breathed into it,” Mondell said.
Several individuals have already started to climb with hopes of bringing others in by leading the way.
A few years ago, two young realtors had an idea to open a business in downtown Tulare with the hope of bringing a glimmer of light back to the downtown area that has been dim for so long. They purchased a building on the corner of L Street and Kern Avenue in Tulare, calling it the Downtown Dream. The idea was to turn it into a co-working space for local artists and professionals to “gather, collaborate, work and empower one another in their individual or collective goals for their businesses and community,” Blake Shawn, Downtown Dream owner said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette in 2020.
Since Shawn and his partner Jacob Fraga opened the original Downtown Dream building in 2020, it has grown steadily. The two now have an additional partner, Zack Slover, and a total of three buildings. Slover said the third building has become home to CornerStone Real Estate, the second is additional co-working spaces and they are working on adding a coffee shop in the original building. Being one of the first groups to initiate life downtown, the group has encouraged others to get involved as well.
Several individuals have purchased buildings downtown with hopes of adding a piece to the puzzle, however they are all running into similar roadblocks. Renovating buildings around 100 years old, requires a considerable amount of safety upgrades, many of which are not simple fixes. Aside from cosmetics, some heavy hitters are updating fire code requirements, becoming Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant and reinforcing the building for seismic activity.
For individuals like Adrian Herrera, these necessary safety updates dramatically hinder the process of cutting the ribbon. Herrera purchased what used to be home to the beloved Toledo Jewelry. Located on the west side of the street at 151 south K St., Herrera’s goal for renovations of the two story building is to have a tap room on the bottom floor, living spaces upstairs and a rooftop patio. A new taproom has submitted their business proposal and Herrerea plans to follow that lead. On June 22, the site plan review committee approved conceptual plans for the rooftop patio.
“[The taproom] is called ‘Tap 78,’ it’s a new deal,” Herrea said. “They submitted their plan, they submitted their financials, they submitted their letter of intent to me to see if they wanted to go ahead and move forward with it.”
In addition to Herrera, Michael Lemus and his wife Jocelyn have purchased the old Elks Lodge Building. Jocelyn said the building was built in 1927 and could use some work. Because there are tenants in the first and basement floors, their main focus is on renovating the second floor. Of course, meeting ADA requirements, calls for an elevator to all floors which could pose a problem for the Lemus’s logistically and financially. Their goal is to turn the second floor into an event venue of sorts and they want to keep a large majority of the character the building has to offer.
“We’ve never done this before,” Jocelyn said. “We don’t quite know what we’re doing, but we just couldn’t not do anything when you want to see downtown thrive.”
Leading the way
The city is aware these renovations are no easy tasks for the private sector. Tulare City Council and Mondell have worked hard to determine ways to provide the most amount of help to as many parties involved.
“In order for downtown’s to redevelop, it has to be the city leading the effort,” Mondell said.
For downtown redevelopment, the city has decided to use $9 million in funding they received from the American Rescue Plan Act (APRA), funding cities received from the federal government as aid resulting from the pandemic. The $9 million has been divided into five separate entities: $5 million for the renovation of Zumwalt Park, $1.3 million to the business incubator, $1 million to downtown rehabilitation grants, $100,000 for a master plan and $2 million for the emergency homeless shelter.
“We’ve committed over $9 million of our $18 million in ARPA funds towards downtown redevelopment,” Mondell said. “It’s absolutely doable, in my opinion, absolutely necessary.”
The entirety of downtown revitalization will take several years, and Mondell has created the process to be completed in several phases. Phase one is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire plan as it lays the groundwork for future development.
Mondell said the city will lead the redevelopment effort by creating a master plan for the future. On May 17, the city council approved a professional services agreement for consulting services with MIG Inc., an environmental design and planning company. The contract is not to exceed $100,000 to prepare a downtown masterplan update. The contract is in the final stages and within the next couple weeks a kick-off meeting with the city and the consultant should take place, according to Deputy City Manager Josh McDonnell.
City Manager Mondell considers the master plan a part of phase one that will really lead the city into phases two and three. He says the plan must be based on market realities, show a financially viable plan and clearly provide the private sector with the city’s intentions and goals. Once the city is able to provide the groundwork, it moves to the shoulders of the private sector. Mondell said by creating this plan, it proves it is safe for them to invest.
“This is what we want the private sector to invest in,” Mondell said. “When you have a plan like that, that will point the direction for the next decade or two and where the investments are made, that will help the private sector to realize that they can get a return on their investments.”
As the masterplan paves the road for the future, it will look at multiple different areas that touch on downtown: parking, maintenance, taxing districts, festivals and events, signage and beautification projects. The plan will also look at catalytic sites where there could be potential for additional private sector growth, maybe even a hotel.
Safe and new endeavors
The emergency homeless shelter holds a key role in the revitalization of downtown. Mondell said it would be difficult to attract outside private sector investment if the city continued without providing a solution for homelessness.
As Tulare has seen a huge spike in individuals experiencing homelessness, the city has engineered a tentative plan for an emergency homeless shelter. The city is currently waiting to hear back on a lease agreement from the county for the desired property for the shelter. Once an agreement between the county and the city is reached, the city will be able to initiate the first of three phases in the emergency homeless shelter plans.
New projects are already in the hopper when the time is right for redevelopment. The city is joining the Tulare Chamber of Commerce in the creation of a business incubator. Ultimately, this incubator will allow small businesses to begin, by providing office space and tools needed to grow a business before they send them out on their own.
“[The incubator is] a place for small startup companies to be housed and to get business assistance, so they understand how to grow,” Mondell said. “Over a period of time, let’s say within three years or so, those companies will spin out, and continue to grow inside the city of Tulare, hopefully in the downtown.”
The city purchased the old Tulare County Courthouse and is in the process of rehabilitating it. City council has approved 4Creeks engineering firm’s architectural plans and will be moving forward. The city is currently working on bringing council a term sheet for the lease agreement between the city and the Chamber of Commerce for the building.
In an additional part of phase one, the city has taken $1 million of ARPA funding and dedicated it to a Downtown Façade, Revitalization and Accessibility Grant Program. The city will allow individuals who need additional funding for necessary updates to their business to apply for a grant through the city. The city will then determine how much they are willing to give the individuals, ranging in any dollar amount with a maximum grant amount of $150,000. Final discretion of the grant is left up to the city manager.
“Bringing a building up to code to be able to fully occupy it, can be very expensive,” Mondell said. “That’s a big reason why we’re offering the building rehabilitation grants.”
Once an application is submitted and verified by the city, it will be reviewed by a grant review committee composed of three city staffers. They will determine whether the project should receive a grant as well as the amount of the award. Priority may be given to projects that meet the criteria better than others.
Some outstanding questions for the city include: will the project positively contribute to a broader redevelopment effort; will the project leverage substantially more investment than the required matching amount in the grant; will the grant result in an improvement that would not be made otherwise; does the project comply with the grant program’s design guidelines?
With no specific deadline, these applications are being considered as they are submitted, according to Deputy City Manager McDonnell. There are currently three applications under review.
Mondell said ideal projects are those that would bring a combination of residential and different recreational spaces. Buildings that offer a combination of businesses will provide people with a place to go, a place to stay and the opportunity for the city to reinvest.
“The city will receive increased property taxes, retail sales, taxes and hotel based taxes,” Mondell said. “All of those tax dollars can then be used by the city to reinvest those into further and further improving downtown.”
For folks like the Lemus’s and Herrera’s, this grant money would be extremely beneficial for some of the necessary expenses they weren’t originally counting on, in particular ADA requirements.
The renovation of Zumwalt Park is perhaps the largest portion of phase one. According to Mondell, the city’s intent is to redesign, redevelop and activate the park for everyday recreational use. They will do so by adding an amphitheater, splash pad and children’s playground.
The updated park will still be available for everyday use, just in addition to that, the city hopes to bring in first class talent and host about 20 to 25 shows each year, according to Mondell. The 20 to 25 shows only account for the entertainment provided by the city, leaving the private industry open. Mondell plans to contract out with an operator to run the amphitheater and therefore attract additional “first-class talent.”
The goal is to have shows that are of such magnitude to attract people from surrounding areas to spend their money in Tulare’s downtown market. This park will become the entertainment component of the entire downtown redevelopment plan.
“If you think about it, right now, there’s not a real reason to come downtown,” Mondell said. “So [the park] will be a great engine to attract people to the downtown area.”
The park will be built to accommodate anywhere from 1,500 to 3,500 ticketed attendees for regular events and upwards of 5,000 for festival events, according to Mondell. The amphitheater will also provide the community with an additional theater for the performing arts that the city is lacking.
Mondell sees Zumwalt park as it is now, to be an attractive, yet passive park, but the city is currently unable to leverage it for any purpose. Since the announcement of the amphitheater last year, the city has held public hearings to receive input from the community for ideas of design and additional thoughts. At the city council meeting on June 21, the city approved a contract with RRM Design Group, out of San Luis Obispo.
RRM Design Group presented the council with the conceptual plans for what the park will look like once completed. Three conceptual designs were presented to the public for feedback in a community and public outreach meeting on May 4. Ultimately, the amphitheater’s design will be a barn style and sit with its back to Tulare Avenue, facing toward city hall. There will be a pond themed splash pad and maritime children’s playground as well.
The complete design for the park will be completed in late 2022 according to Deputy City Manager McDonnell. Once the design is complete, the city will move to bid in early 2023 with construction to follow.
In the city manager’s eyes, success will be measured in a few different ways. The first will be the elimination of vacant buildings with new businesses moving in. Once those buildings are occupied and up and running, they will bring local and out-of-town patrons to roam the area. Having the patrons once again bringing life to the streets and spending their money will increase tax revenues which can and will be reinvested. In addition, there will be an increased availability for employment and residential opportunities, once again providing options for individuals.
“We’ll see a measurable improvement, just visually measurable, but also from a data perspective, we’ll see a measurable improvement in the downtown within three years,” Mondell said. “And within five years, we’ll probably see a significant change in the downtown.”
Mondell is aware that some individuals may have reservations about the process, but he said the key to success is confidence. Especially in light of the supply chain issues, without patience Mondell says it won’t get done.
“People just need to remain positive and focused. If we stick to the plan and the direction in the path, we will have positive results. If we don’t, then those things could be in jeopardy,” Mondell said. “So people need to remain confident and focused and committed.”
This project is not Mondell’s first rodeo. At the end of 2021, Mondell joined Tulare as their new city manager replacing Rob Hunt. After being on board for less than a year, several individuals have nothing but positive things to say about him. Mondell has experience in redevelopment in different towns across the country. He joined the team at a prime time, as the city had just received an unprecedented $18 million in ARPA funds. Mondell has a master’s degree in architecture as well as a masters in urban planning.
“I’ve redeveloped several downtown’s, in my experience,” Mondell said. “So this is something that I sort of live and eat and sleep. This kind of work, it’s a passion of mine.”
At the city council meeting on June 21, Mondell gave examples of the types of amphitheaters he has done in the past, one in Rocklin, Calif. and the other in Ocala Fla.
“We’re going to take everything we learned in those projects, plus we’re gonna get an operator that runs these concert series in other locations so we’ll have more buying power for better talent, and we’ll take everything they’ve learned everything we’ve learned everything our design team has learned, to build a much better project in Tulare,” Mondell said.