Last roll call for Collins on council

Greg Collins steps down from the Visalia City Council after 31-years of shaping the city through sound planning

VISALIA – Greg Collins dedicated his entire adult life to preserving, presiding and promoting his home, the city of Visalia.

The community gathered at this last city council meeting on Nov. 21 to thank him for his 31 years of service on the city council spanning over 47 years. Collins has served three stints on the council, initially from 1975-1991, then 2005-2009 and again from 2011 until 2022. He served as mayor from 1987-1991. During that time, he used his expertise in city planning to shape Visalia into one of the most well-maintained cities in California. His focus on quality of life issues balanced the economic desires for slow or rapid growth and ensured every area of town, every project in all types of zoning had an attention to landscaping, water use, curb appeal and local character.

“After 31 years of service, it’s evident Greg had a great passion for Visalia,” Councilmember Brett Taylor said during the meeting.

When Collins was first elected to the council in 1975 he was the youngest elected official in Visalia at just 22 years old. Shannon O’Dell, the longtime city clerk for Visalia, said the council did not welcome Collins at first, but soon came to appreciate his planning expertise. It was Collins, now 69 years old, who spearheaded the city’s 1978 General Plan, which stopped growth along Mooney Boulevard at Packwood Creek, a move credited with holding urban sprawl at bay for two generations.

“He was not well loved by the development community,” former Visalia city manager Mike Olmos said. “Greg knows this and it was not a secret.”

Collins’ guiding hand can be seen throughout the city. There are the byways and highways lined by Valley Oaks, a symbol of Visalia’s native origins, preserved by regulations written by Collins. The scenic corridor of Highway 198 free from junkyards and industrial waste piles provides a pristine view of the Sierras. Collins and his fellow council members also pushed CalTrans to depress the freeway through town at the turn of this century, to drop the speeding cars below ground level to limit noise and traffic impacts to residents.

“There is a reason we don’t look like Fresno and Bakersfield and you were a big part of that,” Olmos said to Collins during public comment.

Olmos worked with Collins prior to his election to the council. The two men were planners with the County of Tulare and Olmos recognized early on that Collins looked at projects, the city and himself from a different perspective than others. Olmos recalled when Collins was prepared to do a public presentation but was sent home after wearing a plaid jacket, pants with vertical stripes and a tie with horizontal stripes.

“I knew this guy had his own style and a trailblazer,” Olmos said.

His unique style earned him the nickname “4-1” Collins because he routinely objected to the traditional notions of bigger is better, all business is good business, and if your community isn’t growing, it’s dying. Instead, Collins pushed for in-fill projects, concentric growth patterns to keep downtown as the center of the city, and that quality of life is just as vital as economic development in the prosperity of a community.

Mayor Steve Nelsen, the longest tenured councilmember next to Collins, often found himself on opposite sides of issues from Collins but their discussions were always respectful. The two elder statesman of the council served on the Mid Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency together tackling one of Valley’s most dire issues. Nelsen touted Collins as a champion of water sustainability, conservation and public works planning.

“When you lose someone with 30 years of institutional knowledge, you don’t replace that with one councilmember,” Nelsen said.

Preserving Downtown

Berkley Johnson, former city councilmember and Visalia’s Man of the Year in 1992, credited Collins with maintaining Visalia’s “vibrant and growing” downtown. Collins was a key player in keeping Kaweah Delta, now Kaweah Health, hospital in the downtown when many lobbied to move the district hospital to the outskirts of town. Today, Kaweah Health employs more than 4,000 employees and is planning to build a new six-story tower. The economic vitality of downtown attracted another health care giant in the area, Family HealthCare Network, to headquarter its network of federally qualified health centers which now number more than 40 in three counties. FHCN has also purchased the old Picnic building and will be opening a new bookstore and office on Main Street.

Collins supported the council vote to create a microbrewery overlay district along Main Street from Santa Fe to Ben Maddox which has led to the openings of Barrelhouse and Long Shot breweries, with Simply Brewing on the way, as well as restaurants Stacked and Sushi Kuu. He also supported purchasing land in east downtown for a future civic center complex, which was on this week’s agenda, and is currently in the planning phase.

“This city is better off because of Greg,” Mayor Pro-Tem Brian Poochigian said.

Collins won the battle over bringing a national hotel brand to Downtown Visalia, considered highly controversial back then, and was among those who persuaded Downton merchants to tax themselves to support an improvement district.

Johnson listed Collins’ other accomplishments such as creating a historic preservation district and spearheading a sign ordinance to maintain the city’s clean, professional business district.

“To the current council, I hope your planning is as good as Greg’s was at that time,” Johnson said.

Beyond the boundaries of the city, Colins promoted the idea of an ag mitigation plan, to preserve agricultural land around the city. Even though the council overruled its implementation, a lawsuit by the Sierra Club led to Tulare County Superior Court order to implement the conservation fee on development outside the city limits. He also helped convince Congressman John Krebbs to block a Disney ski resort from decimating the Mineral King Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Smart Growth

Visalia’s population was just 30,000 when Collins first served on the council in 1975 and today stands at 150,000 upon his retirement. While growing five times over is significant, Collins’ efforts to manage growth has helped Visalia maintain its small city feel while still reaping the benefits of being Tulare County’s economic hub.

Instead of allowing Visalia to run into Tulare along the Mooney corridor, Visalia focused on in-fill projects, like converting the old Mearl’s Drive-Thru into The Habit. Instead of vacating the Sequoia Mall for a newer property outside of town, Visalia is attracting new retailers such as Sprouts and Nordstrom Rack to take the place of the former Sears.

North Visalia, once thought to be a disadvantaged afterthought, has been redeveloped with national retailers, auto stores, medical offices and clinics, as well as restaurants, such as the city’s second In-N-Out.

After comments, Collins thanked the packed crowd of friends, family and former and current colleagues for their support, especially his wife of 41 years Dorothy. “She knows how difficult it is to live with me,” Collins quipped. He also offered his support to the newest councilmember, Emmanuel Soto, who will be installed after the results of the November election are certified sometime next month. Like Collins, Soto’s first time on the council will be as its youngest member.

“This seat can get pretty hot at times but you’ll be alright,” Collins told Soto.

Collins shared with his successor and the audience his top 10 list of things he has learned during his career spanning over six decades on the dais: 1) leave the city better than you found it; 2) treat the city like it is your home; 3) drive the city once per month for perspective; 4) promote ways for people to get together; 5) think outside the box; 6) push staff to be great and not just good; 7) be a good listener; 8) compliments about the city are about the staff and not about you as a council member; 9) you are not judged by how your best neighborhoods look but by how your most disadvantaged neighborhoods look; and 10) avoid partisan politics.

“People in Visalia don’t care if you are Republican or Democrat, they care about the trash being picked up and fixing potholes in the road,” Collins said.

Among his last actions on the council were providing direction on the new public safety building and civic center, approving funding for Fire Station 56 and welcoming the city’s new public works director. He also addressed his future, especially concerning one particularly personal and publicly important piece of unfinished business – the Aquatics Complex.

“I will be coming back every year until we get that thing,” Collins said.

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