Visalia bids farewell to its statesman

Bob Link is celebrated by fellow councilmembers and staff after 21 years of leadership on the Visalia City Council

VISALIA – Bob Link has been called many things during his half century in business and nearly a quarter century on the Visalia City Council. He’s known as Mr. Mayor, for his three terms as mayor, Mr. Visalia, for his lifelong engagement in the community, and Mr. Downtown for his more than 50 years of owning Link’s Menswear. But the word that came to mind during his retirement from 21 years on the city council was statesman, because no matter how Link felt about a particular issue he was always willing to listen to both sides and always voted to do what he thought was best for the community he loves.

The 82-year-old Link was first elected to the city council in 1999 and since then has served with three different city managers, 10 different configurations of the council, 16 different councilmembers and countless department heads and city staff. Link said the different council members and staff didn’t always agree with the outcomes but everyone worked toward a common goal once a decision had been made.

“I have said it many, many times, ‘I’ve got a great idea,’ but if I can’t find two other people up here that agree with me, it’s going to go nowhere,” Link said. “So when we talk about how well this council has done, and maybe my leadership, it’s not really mine, it’s how the five of us work together.”

Link spotlighted three projects that stand out from his time on the council where he and his fellow councilmembers “made the right decision … for our community.” He said renovating Rawhide Stadium saved minor league baseball in Visalia despite a number of issues and disagreements on the project. Building the Packwood Creek shopping center established Visalia as a retail hub between Fresno and Bakersfield even though expanding the city’s southern boundaries was a controversial decision. The last item on his list was constructing the city’s Water Reclamation Facility. The $152 million facility is the largest project the city has ever undertaken, an expense the council would have been unable to incur before or after 2014 through 2018 as the economy was steadily expanding. The facility uses a state-of-the-art tertiary process to clean wastewater to a point it can be used for landscaping, irrigating and groundwater recharge. Basically, it can be used for everything except direct human consumption. The system generates about 12,000 acre feet of recycled water per year. Most of that is then exchanged for 6,000 acre-feet of surface water the city uses to recharge the aquifer, and the rest is used to irrigate parks and landscaping along medians and highways.

“And because of that, we have secured the fact that we can continue as a community to grow both in the retail and into industrial and into residential,” Link said. “We have secured the future for our community by making that decision.”

Link said the only project he was hoping to see come to fruition prior to his retirement was a new civic center. “We bought property to develop at some point in time, we’re going to have a civic center in our community, which I hope I live long enough to see the Civic Center.” Steve Nelsen, who replaced Link as mayor later that night, has served on the council with him for the last decade. Nelsen knew Link in the community prior to joining him on the council but said he didn’t understand how ingrained Link was in every aspect of the city until being elected in 2010.

“He has created a foundation for previous councils and the current Council, and he will be sorely missed,” Nelsen said. “We don’t always agree. But we can always talk and discuss. He was always available.”

Nelsen presented Link with a Visalia street sign that read: “Link Lane 1999-2020,” one-of-a-kind drawings of Rawhide Stadium and the Transit Center, two things that happened during his tenure, as well as a resolution about his time on the council. Link was first elected to the council in 1999 and served three terms as mayor. During that time he attended nearly every milestone in recent history, including ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings for parks, sports parks, homeless summits and housing summits, gospel concerts and leadership conferences.

For much of that time Link was also running his own business. He and his brother ran Links Men’s and Women’s wear from 1959 until his retirement in 2013. As a business owner, Link donated thousands of dollars to local nonprofits for a variety of causes from youth baseball to professional baseball and Police K-9s to rescued animals.

“Bob is a man of character who has displayed unwavering commitment virtue, compromise, positive influence, and as needed good humor when handling the wide array of situations that a city councilmember is tasked with on almost day to day basis,” the resolution read.

Link repeatedly attempted to avoid the spotlight on get to the night’s business, but those in attendance wouldn’t have it.

Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar presented a VPD mug, patches and some challenge coins, military token signifying a tour of duty on behalf of the department.

“You’ve always been a class act and a true professional, and a very kind person, we appreciate all you’ve given to this community and for all your support to the department,” Salazar said.

A similar gesture was made by new Visalia Fire Chief Dan Griswold, in addition to a Visalia Fire Department face covering.

“It allows you to take command of any emergency, no questions asked,” Griswold quipped. “So just put that on in the ship is yours.”

Councilmember Greg Collins read a statement by former councilmember Walter Deissler, who served with Link on the council from 2005-2011. Deissler said Link was a mentor both professional and personally.

“We had such enlightening conversations that expanded my knowledge of the community and gave us an opportunity to grow as colleagues,” Deissler wrote. “Your forward thinking leadership enabled you to look at ways to keep the downtown strong, continuing to strengthen the community at large.”

Supervisor Amy Shuklian was almost brought to tears as she recalled Link handing her his handkerchief during the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Verbeek, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011. She managed to follow it up with a humorous story of sharing cramped car rides to meet with legislators in Washington, getting into a wreck with a taxicab and then having to run/jog the rest of the way there.

Shuklian, who served with Link for nine years on the city council prior to being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2016, called Link a true leader and a statesman to the community and a mentor personally.

“And through that time, my respect for you just grew and grew by side has been lucky to have you the last 20 years,” Shuklian said. “I just hope that in the future, we can maintain that type of leadership.”

Collins also referred to Link as a statesman who provided a steady demeanor on the council through gang issues, the Great Recession, the daily trials and tribulations of dealing with the city’s homeless and during the current pandemic. Collins also credited Link’s leadership for ushering in several lasting landmarks including the Rawhide Stadium renovation, Visalia Transit Center downtown and the Riverway Sportspark, which is slated to open its newest softball complex in 2021.

“I think that term is often overused, but I think he’s a true statesman where he always had Visalia first and foremost, and that’s what truly makes a great leader in the statesman,” Collins said.

Councilmember Phil Cox served on the council with Link from 2002-2006 and again from 2016-2020 and said Link had made difficult decisions during his 20 years on the council but made them so thoughtfully the entire dais agreed with him, regardless of how they voted.

“Bob loves Visalia,” Cox said. “And as I’ve had the opportunity to sit with him for literally the 20 years that he has been on the council, I can tell you that that’s true, he does love Visalia, he loves the citizens of Visalia, and Bob, you have represented Visalia very well.”

Councilmember Brian Poochigian has served with Link for the shortest amount of time after being elected in 2018, but said that was enough time to learn an important lesson from Link. Shortly after being elected, Poochigian said Link invited him to coffee to share some words of wisdom.

“I know you’re elected in a district position, but forget about the district. We’re in here for Visalia and we do what’s best for Visalia here,” Poochigian recalled Link saying. “So that’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. And when we make decisions, we do what’s best for Visalia and not just our district.”

Link’s family was in attendance at the celebration including his son Jeff and his wife Valerie, daughter Carrie and her husband Paul, and daughter Leslie and her husband Darren. Jeff thanked his father on behalf of the family for helping keep Visalia a great city to raise his family, something he hopes the current council can continue.

“I want you to know, Dad, how much I appreciate you doing that for my kids,” Jeff said.

Before exiting life as an elected official, the statesman thanked longtime employees throughout the city government, including code enforcement officer Tracy Robertshaw, public information officer Allison Mackey, deputy city clerk Michelle Nicholson, deputy city manager Leslie Caviglia and city manager Randy Groom, who was the city clerk who administered the oath of office for Link when he was a first elected in 1999.

“I didn’t think either one of us thought it would be 21 years, and that you would come back as our city manager,” Link said.

Link capped off the goodbye by thanking the two most important figures in his life—God, and his wife Pam. He said both provided him with the counsel he needed to represent the city.

“First, I need to thank the good Lord, for giving me the energy and the health to do what I’ve done for the last 21 years,” Link said. “And finally, I could not do this without my wife, Pam. For those of you who have to sit in this position, it’s great to have a partner like that. And Pam, I love you,” he choked up. “Thank you very much.”

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