Caldwell/99 Interchange delayed until 2028

Photo by Rigo Moran

CalTrans new timeline stalls Sequoia Gateway business park as anchor sites may hold off until the 70-year-old interchange is upgraded

TULARE COUNTY – CalTrans has again missed its construction date for the long-awaited Caldwell Avenue interchange at Highway 99, stalling development for a nearby business park.

A year ago, the state agency said construction was expected to start by August 2023, but a lot has happened in California resulting in delays. A global pandemic, some 20 atmospheric rivers decimating roads and bridges and, now, a state budget crisis, just to name a few.

News of another delay came this month when CalTrans District 6 administrator Mike Navarro said “we expect to begin construction by the end of this year.” He estimated construction would last three years, meaning the project is nearly four years away from completion.

While most residents are unaffected by the delays, the drawn-out time frame matters more to the developers of the Sequoia Gateway business park – the huge 1.46 million square-foot commercial center that was first proposed back in 2015. The controversial project on the outskirts of Visalia was approved by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors in 2018.

News articles at the time reported that the developers estimated “Sequoia Gateway will create more than 2,000 jobs and $17 million in annual tax revenue.”

Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said, “It’s going to be a tremendous increase in property tax evaluation which will benefit the county now, ultimately benefit the city of Visalia and the county. And it’s going to increase sales tax tremendously.”

Located at the southeast corner of Caldwell Avenue and Highway 99, Sequoia Gateway will be built in phases over the next eight to 10 years. The first phase was set to include a Valley Children’s specialty care center, as well as gas stations and fast food restaurants. Plans for phase two include hotels, retail stores, and a visitor’s center.

When approved in 2018 the only commercial activity at that corner was a Shell gas station and convenience store surrounded by ag land and the Visalia Airport runway to the north. Today, the Shell station is still there and a Valero station has opened along with a drive-thru coffee store.

The latest delay in Caltrans construction launch estimate is not the first time dates have come and gone. In 2018, the project’s EIR stated “The Caltrans ‘Status of Projects’ Report indicates that completion of the interchange reconstruction project is scheduled for July 2024. For purposes of the programmatic analysis for the Near Term (2024) scenario, it is therefore assumed that the reconstructed interchange will be completed and open to traffic.”

Indeed, the developer anticipated as much as 1,000,000 square feet of development by now when it filed its environmental document for the project in 2018.

Driving Up the Price

The price tag for the interchange project – requiring demolition of the existing freeway overcrossing bridge and replacement with a new wider bridge and four through-lanes – has risen to $68.2 million by the latest estimate, up from $53.5 million in 2018 and $36.8 million in 2009.

After years of trying to make it happen, the existing landowners Bill Travis and Fred Ruiz have been shopping the project around, according to Tulare County Economic Development Manager Mike Washam. An unknown developer has been doing “due diligence” on a possible purchase of about 85 acres of the 127-acre land for almost a year.

Calls to the owners requesting comment were not returned.

That due diligence likely includes how long it will take for consumers to access any tenants that the developer would try to attract. The developers and tenants now know that isn’t looking until 2028.

Significant business interests have already looked at the site and walked away, including the Great Wolf Resort. The 500-700 room hotel and waterpark made a splash when it was announced in January 2022 but last spring the company “decided not to move forward” on the $2-billion economic impact project.

As recently as December, news reports said the hotel resort project — first proposed in January 2022 — was expected to break ground in 2023 and open in 2025. As of a few months ago, Washam was still optimistic.

He was advised last weekend that the company, which operates 19 Great Wolf Lodge resorts across the U.S., decided that “the timing was not right” on the Visalia location, suggesting they were busy breaking ground on resorts in other parts of the country.

“I don’t think they have any other potential locations in California they prefer,” instead focusing outside the state, said Washam.

It makes sense that the company might give up on the idea to open in 2025 as the current interchange is about 70 years old and incapable of handling that amount of traffic and a new interchange is now still years away.

A major challenge this shopping center has is that it is located away from any population center and totally dependent for success on its connection to Highway 99. Unlike Mooney Boulevard, a store coming into the Sequoia Gateway center cannot count on existing shoppers that will be visiting hundreds of neighboring stores and restaurants, large and small along the retail trip Mooney Blvd. For example, Sam’s Club and Chick-fil-A don’t have to wait until 2028 and hope customers will come. Instead they recently selected S. Mooney Blvd. for their proposed location – near Costco, Target and three-plus miles of local and regional commercial outlets.

The mass cluster of stores, surrounded by thousands of homes, help float all the boats.

Possible Hospital Detours

Two other proposed anchors for the commercial center include Valley Children’s Hospital and Kaweah Health, each of which have said they may want to offer clinical space at the highway commercial center.

Valley Children’s Hospital, based in Madera, has a few Valley clinics already. The nonprofit already and a Visalia clinical location near the Visalia Medical Clinic where they serve children.

Kaweah Health too has extensive clinical space all over Visalia, countywide and in Tulare. Valley Children’s Hospital said they supported the project and wanted to be part of it back in 2018. But as of spring 2024 there’s no sign they are moving forward with a facility here after talking about it for nine years.

Each of the big healthcare entities have their own issues to worry about that include difficult finances and community support. Due largely to the widespread Covid epidemic, Kaweah Health has been suffering under red ink for a few years and is only now coming out of it with financial help from the state.

Valley Children’s Hospital has recently had their own problem related to the disclosure of the $5 million salary of their CEO even as most of their patients are low-income children on MediCal. The publicity has hurt the hospital’s community support and likely their fundraising.

Kaweah Health continues to study opening a surgical clinic at the Gateway site based on the idea that funding for the project would come from private physicians in partnership with the public healthcare district. Some decision on this could come as soon as July, sources say.

Today the Sequoia Gateway project looks pretty much like it did back in 2015 although there is now a second gas station and a Dutch Bros. coffee drive-thru. But there will have to be a lot of lattes served before a significant number of fellow tenants move in.

The fate of the commercial center remains dependent on what happens with the oft-delayed freeway interchange.

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