Chamber will announce Small, Medium and Large Business of the Year, Nonprofit of the Year at June 9 awards ceremony
VISALIA – A community is a network of relationships strengthened by the commitment of its members to each other. It’s about serving customers who support local business, caring for patients who care for others, and helping others who may be unable to help themselves.
For more than six decades, the Visalia business community has come together each year to honor and recognize some of their peers who, in one way or another, have stood out, excelled, or demonstrated some trait of excellence that they feel deserves acknowledgement. Over the years, the format of the program has changed, the number of awards has varied, but through it all, what has been consistent has been that desire to recognize that which is good and great in our community.
The awards event will be held from 4-6:30 p.m. on June 9 at the Visalia Fox Theatre by the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. Most of the awards have yet to be announced with a grouping of worthy businesses and organizations in each category but two stalwart community members have already been named as recipients this year in the two most notable categories: Man and Woman of the Year.
Man of the Year
This year’s honor for Man of the Year goes to the venerable Bob Link, whose business sense helped build downtown Visalia into a jewel of the Valley, passion for sports made the city a regional destination, and foresight continues to help the city progress.
Link’s story begins in the 1940s when he began sweeping floors and stocking shelves at his family business Link’s Menswear in downtown. After college, Link returned to his hometown to take over the family business along with his brother Tom. The younger Links were able to grow the family store from the original 900 square feet to 3,000 square feet of retail space and open two more businesses as they adapted to a changing market. In addition to the downtown store, the Links opened a jean shop, to capitalize on the denim craze of the 1980s, and a women’s store, in an effort to solve one of the biggest clothing issues of the day, the need to provide fitted outfits to women trying to navigate varying sizes and diverse fitting options. Both of those stores were located along the city’s other commercial corridor on Mooney Boulevard.
While the Links may have made the leap to Mooney, they never allowed their hearts and minds to leave downtown. In order to preserve the precious plot of retail places, Bob worked to protect not only his family’s investment in downtown but the investment of his neighboring businesses as well. Along with other leading names from the downtown, Roger Franey and Don Esetes, Bob helped to form the Downtown Visalia Property and Business Improvement District (PBID) in 1998, only the second one created in the state at the time. Businesses within the district, which runs between Mineral King to School avenues and Conyer and Santa Fe streets, decided to tax themselves to fund landscaping, parking and infrastructure projects needed to keep the city center vibrant.
“It’s just the jewel of the Valley,” Link said. “Lots of places to eat, lots of things to do, and people feel very safe in the downtown area.”
That same year in 1998, Link ran for the first of his five terms on the Visalia City Council. One of the reasons Link decided to run was to oppose opening a regional shopping center off Plaza Drive and Highway 198 where the Auto Mall is now. Link said Mooney Boulevard was teetering at that time and city leaders, including himself, felt opening a new regional shopping center that far outside of town could have pushed the Mooney corridor to the brink. Instead, developers proposed extending Mooney Boulevard south of Caldwell, the line in the sand for which most believed the city should not cross.
“It was a major, major decision for the council,” Link said. “As a result of that, it’s really secured Mooney Boulevard as a shopping designation for the whole area.”
Link was also involved with another decision on the opposite end of town. In 2004, he and the city council approved purchasing 80 acres off Riggin Road and Dinuba Boulevard to build a regional sports park. Riverway Sports Park opened 10 soccer fields in 2007 as part of Phase I and completed a four-diamond softball complex in 2020. The complex has not only been home to city and nonprofit youth and adult sports leagues but has also hosted the Cal Ripken World Series. The issue was important for Link who spent many years coaching Bobby Sox youth softball and was an advocate for Cal Ripken youth baseball.
“It’s really a great amenity,” Link said. “I think that type of thing is huge for the community in terms of a place to spend their time.”
Bob’s civic activities are too numerous to list in this article but he was a founding member of West Visalia Kiwanis Club, past chairman of the local Council of Boy Scouts of America, vice president of Visalia Christian Ministries and a past deacon at Gateway Church where he has been in the choir for over 50 years.
Link, 84, isn’t done. He is spending part of his retirement from public service ensuring the city has a place for unhoused individuals. Link continues to serve on the board of directors for TC Hope, the driving force behind building a low-barrier shelter across from the Riverway Sports Park. He said his philosophy has always been that building relationships with others builds stronger communities.
“It’s people who really care about this community who are willing to commit themselves and their enthusiasm and energy and their money to building something, that they feel very strongly will make this a better community,” Link said. “There’s always an avenue for people who want to do something more for the community.”
Woman of the Year
Jody Gilman epitomizes caring for others when they need it most. Long before her current passion project of creating the first homeless village in California as part of her service on Salt + Light Works’ board of directors, she spent decades as a nurse and nursing instructor. Gilman spent 30 years as a registered nurse with Kaweah Delta Healthcare District and taught nursing for 10 years at College of the Sequoias before retiring. She said she hopes her award will help her help others find their paths to improving the community.
“Events like these bring an element of positivity and kind of a joy of celebrating other people that we don’t always take the time to do,” Gilman said. “We can be very critical a lot of the time, we can see all the negative stuff going on, so this can bring people and businesses and organizations that care, and that are active and are still going strong.”
Since “retiring,” she has taken on even more – having served on the Board of Directors for Turning Point of Central California, recently served as President of the Soroptimist of Visalia service club, was on the Executive Committee of the Tulare County Child Abuse Prevention Council, participant in the Tulare County Human Trafficking Task Force Coalition, and past committee member for the 210 Connect Advisory Council through her church First Presbyterian of Visalia. She also volunteers and fundraises for Family Services of Tulare County, where her daughter Caity Meader is executive director.
“I think the common thread is just caring for people,” Gilman said. “As a nurse, my heart was like always, “Okay, what’s going to happen to this person afterwards?”
Gilman is a third generation member of Soroptimist International of Visalia, where her grandmother Catherine Cruzen was a charter member in 1939 and her daughter Caity is now the fourth generation to serve in the club. During her time with the organization, she was instrumental in developing the Violence against Women and Advocacy (VAWA). The group has been a great resource to the Karen’s house, Rape Crisis and Prevention Center, and the Freedom and other Family Services entities. Gilman is especially proud of her work on the Live your Dream Team. The Flag Ship program for Soroptimist International provides monetary awards for women who are head of household and re-entering postsecondary college and careers to further their education, in order to provide for their families. Jody’s belief is that when you help a woman you help the whole family.
“These are typically women that have overcome lots of really difficult obstacles like substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, who have really, really deep stories,” Gilman said. “Then we help them make that next step and show them there are people that believe in them.”
The next step for homelessness is creating places where everyone, regardless of their material worth, can have a sense of belonging. Gilman said her heart is truly enthralled in her latest volunteer venture with Salt + Light. The homeless housing advocacy organization is on the cusp of building a 52-unit community that will rent fully-furnished homes to people facing chronic homelessness. The first of its kind in California, The Neighborhood Village will be located on 6.5 acres next to Self-Help Enterprises’ Sequoia Commons multifamily housing project, phase one of which opened in 2020, at Road 76 and Avenue 310 south of Florence Avenue in Goshen, adjacent to the city of Visalia. The community will also include a 5,000-square foot unity hall, a dog park and a memorial garden. The unity hall will not only be a community gathering place it will also have a state-of-the-art community kitchen, which will provide meals for residents and a Farm-to-Table Culinary Training Program. It will also include work space for residents to start their own micro business and offices for local service providers to meet with residents privately. The organization is also one of the finalists for the chamber’s Nonprofit of the Year.
“I loved the philosophy behind it, because it’s not faith-based, in terms of you have to do certain things to earn the services, it is faith-inspired,” Gilman said. “The whole message of Jesus is being lived out in how they’re treating people.”
Gilman said the issue of homelessness is complex and often unique to an individual’s experience but the one common thread shared by those living on the streets is a loss of relationships. She said rather than having people earn a second chance, such as requiring a long-time addict to be sober as a condition of housing, Salt + Light gives them a second chance with the only requirement being they don’t negatively affect their neighbors within the community.
“I liked that idea of you already belong, you’re already important enough and valuable enough,” Gilman said. “My perspective is you are a child of God already, you don’t have to earn that,and you don’t have to do anything, you already have that status.”
Link and Gilman are just two of the people who will be honored June 9 when the Visalia Chamber of Commerce pops open the envelopes and toasts the winners with popcorn and champagne at the Fox. The chamber will also be announcing 2022 Small, Medium, and Large Business of the Year as well as Non-Profit of the Year.
Finalists for the awards are as follows:
SMALL BUSINESS: Ashoori & Co. Jewlers, Component Coffee Lab, LLC, Quesadilla Gorilla and The Sun-Gazette.
MEDIUM BUSINESS: Elite Medical, Valley Strong Credit Union and World Wide Sires, LTD.
LARGE BUSINESS: American Ambulance of Visalia, Eagle Mountain Casino, Kaweah Health, and M. Green and Company.
NON-PROFIT: Arts Visalia, Assistance League of Visalia, Salt + Light Works and Self-Help Enterprises.
The Chamber will also be presenting the 2022-2023 Board of Directors and announcing Chamber members who will be celebrating milestone anniversaries with the Chamber from 20 – 70 years. Tickets for the event start at $30 and can be purchased at VisaliaChamber.org/awards.