By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Twelve years and $1.5 million later, the City of Visalia has finally narrowed down a piece of property to build a new civic center. They just aren’t going to do it any time soon.
At its March 4 meeting, the Visalia City Council voted to construct a new public safety headquarters building before a new civic center, possibly pushing that project back by 20 or 30 years. Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen motioned to build the public safety building first, which was seconded by Councilmember Brian Poochigian and supported by Councilmember Phil Cox to pass on a 3-2 vote.
“I think part of the problem we have is you have five people up here with different opinions,” said Mayor Bob Link, who voted in favor of building a civic center first.
Poochigian noted that police headquarters is one of the oldest city-owned buildings making it the building with the greatest need for replacement or relocation. Nelsen agreed, adding that the city’s administration offices are in a new building, and that city hall west and city hall east were both recently remodeled.
Nelsen said constructing a public safety building first would create opportunities to lease out joint spaces to other cities and county agencies looking to share dispatch with Visalia. He said the city could lower ongoing operation costs of the building by one third, a savings that could then be set aside for a civic center.
The council did agree that the new public safety administration building should be located west of the new Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC) along Burke Street north of School Avenue, leaving the property south of School Avenue for a future civic center. Nelsen became irritated with the conversation, as the city had already approved an East Downtown Master Plan in 2014 laying those exact locations. That was after the city council approved two previous master plans with consulting fees totaling more than $1.2 million.
“We had everything set to go and now we are doing this all over again,” Nelsen said. “I don’t get it but we will move on.”
While extremely preliminary, the council estimated a new public safety building would cost at least $7 million. Collins countered the city did not need more public safety administrative space, but more substations throughout the city. Collins said building the civic center first made more sense because the city could sell two of its buildings where the city administrative staff work currently.
“The VECC was $11 million and we don’t have $11 million,” Collins said.
In an effort to provide a new civic center as well as a police headquarters, Collins suggested committing to building a new civic center but also remodel the former police headquarters. Collins argued the original police and fire stations on Johnson Street are uniquely situated to respond to calls in a timely manner. Fire Chief McBee said that Station 51 would remain as a strategic location for the Visalia Fire Department due to response times requirements. Chief McBee also noted that the Visalia Fire Department has enough room at its current home, the VECC, to stay at least another 10 years.
Police Chief Jason Salazar said his department never talked about remodeling its former HQ because it was “bursting at the seams” for property and evidence, including a leaky roof above the evidence storage area.
“Our goal is to consolidate as many operations into one location,” Salazar told the council. “To completely remodel would cost as much or more [than a new building].”
Community Development Nick Mascia said just replacing the roof of the downtown police station would cost $300,000. Finance Director Renee Nagel said the city has about $5 million in its civic center reserve fund to put toward a new building of its choosing. If the city were to sell off several properties, including city hall west, city hall east, and the current city administration building on Santa Fe and Oak, Nagle said the city may be able to generate $18 million for a new building.
Councilmember Phil Cox suggested doing what Kaweah Delta did with its Acequia Wing tower and construct a multi-story building but only complete the first floor now. Other floors would be finished as city departments grow into them, which could reduce the initial cost of constructing the shell of the building.
Collins suggested building a four-story building, with the first two floors for public safety and the remaining two floors for administrative staff. Collins also wanted to keep the “grand mall” design element of having a park leading up to the entrance of a new civic center.
Staff will come back to the council at a future meeting to discuss funding options, property sales, and the order of department relocations from other buildings.