Visalia could pay cash for new $107M civic center

Visalia City Council OKs initial designs of three-story, Mission-style civic center east of downtown that would include a larger council chambers, public safety administration building and evidence facility

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council is building a new home for city hall and they have enough saved up to pay for the entire project in cash, if they want to.

At its May 1 meeting, the council voted to move forward with plans to build a three-story, Mission style civic center a few blocks east of downtown at Burke Street and School Avenue. If construction began today, the estimated cost to develop the 33-acre complex would be $107 million. That’s a large number but $3 million less than the city has saved up in its coffers.

“Can we afford that? Yes we can – assuming no recession,” finance director Renee Nagel said based on conservative projections through fiscal year 2024-25.

The savings have been squirreled away in a civic center fund for the past 13 years as general fund revenue increased following the housing collapse even as staff costs were cut. During the pandemic, city sales and property taxes, which account for 79% of the city’s unrestricted funding, grew thanks to industrial and retail development and new laws providing cities with taxes from online sales through recently arrived retail fulfillment shippers like Amazon in the last few years. Sales tax revenue far exceeded budget estimates according to an April finance report to council. Sales tax revenue has outperformed city estimates by 29%, cumulatively, over three years.

The civic center fund currently sits at $73 million with another $8.6 million from an impact fee on new construction, $7 million from a police and fire impact fund, $8 million from Measure T, a quarter-cent public safety tax approved by voters in 2004, and $6 million in Measure N, a half-cent sales tax measure approved in 2017.

There is also federal relief funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that all local governments received to help offset financial losses due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The city still has $13 million from ARPA it can use for this project by paying for salaries that will save the general fund. Staff estimates the city could have an additional $3 million from the sale of the current police department and city hall west, both at Johnson Street and Acequoia Avenue, when those offices are relocated to the new civic center complex. The city is planning to go out to bid for the complex in summer 2024 with construction in late 2025 and a move-in date in early 2026.

The current city hall west, where council chambers are located, was built in 1956 replacing a Spanish-style city hall, also with towers, that was razed in 1972 to make way for the Visalia Convention Center. Before new construction happens, the city will need to complete architecture and engineering plans and “buy” the land from its former redevelopment agency. The 33 acres is currently split between Government Use (15.7 acres) and Future Development (17.4 acres) designations.

Any extra land could potentially draw other public uses including former council member Greg Collins’ plan to build an aquatics complex. Collins was an early proponent of the east Visalia civic center but also for building a smaller project and using some of the civic center money to fund an aquatic center in downtown.

Other Side of the Tracks

This land at Burke and School was formerly railroad-owned used by agricultural, industrial and car-related shops, next to the Tulare County Farm Bureau’s stockyard across Goshen Avenue. The open land, dotted with iconic oak trees and criss-crossed by Mill Creek, was an out of the way location that made it popular as a former hot spot for homeless people and a forgotten part of town.

The city began exploring development of the mostly empty acreage in 2002 and got an Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund grant through the California Departmnet of Toxic Substances Control to remove contaminated soil, completing the job in 2010. The move to look east followed the city’s purchase of other railroad land at Oak and Santa Fe where the city transit center is today. That move spurred private development in the blocks east of Visalia’s main downtown blocks as well as the relocation of car dealers to the Ben Maddox corridor.

Now the plan is to start construction on this long held vision by 2025.

Councilmember Brett Taylor said former city councils saved up for years for this project and with cash in hand “it’s time for a new civic center complex” that can serve Visalia’s council and public safety services in one location The expansive complex will look out at parkland to the north toward downtown.

The only building on the campus now is the Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC), the city’s dispatch hub for emergency calls. Now a new police and fire administration building as well as a new evidence building will be joined by an overhanging canopy, tower and plaza to the west. This would tie in with the new council chambers and eventually a city hall, complete with a 125-car parking lot, where the public can interface with city staff.

The last phase of the project would be adding the rest of city hall, which would add $56 million to the cost of the entire project. Council is leaning toward not moving forward on this option for now even though they agree it will indeed cost more to wait and the city does have some of the funding. The finance director did say the council would have to issue some debt for this option. For now, they want to wait and see how the economy shakes out.

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