White River Ranch, east of Traver, recently completed a $1.2 million expansion of its chicken-raising operation, adding three new state-of-the art growing houses allowing the business to raise and sell about 430,000 chickens annually.

published on November 23, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by David Castellon

As the nation has progressively recovered from the Great Recession, so has the economy in Tulare County.

Home prices rose again this year, though that trend is slowing, while new, large commercial developments are in the works from the expansion plans for a major nut producer to a developing boom in chicken-raising operations.

Meanwhile, retail businesses have experienced growth over the year, despite some major retailers shutting their doors, and unemployment rates took a significant dive to 8.3 percent in October compared to 9.1 percent a year earlier.

“I would say the residential market is strong. We see that residential builders are opening new neighborhoods,” with more of them being developed in the smaller communities that include Goshen, Farmersville and Exeter, said Stephen Peck, a Visalia-based real estate project planner and consultant and owner of Peck Planning and Development, LLC.

While it’s not exactly a boom in new development, Peck said, “I would say it’s steady, which is a good thing.”

Home prices have increased modestly, while sales have lagged.

“Toward the end of the year, buying has been flat,” while inventory of new homes has risen in the county, said Ruben Olguin, president of the Tulare County Association of Realtors.

“I wouldn’t say it’s troublesome. It’s an adjustment,” he said, noting that home values in Tulare County are still rising.

Homes that lost considerable value during the recession finally have rebuilt enough equity that homeowners are finally confident enough to put them up for sale, which is why home availability is higher, he said.

“Commercial development is a different story,” said Peck, explaining that the retail industry is “sorting out,” with some retailers shutting down here – the Visalia Kmart, OSH and Toys ‘R’ Us among them – while the
Sears at Visalia’s Sequoia Mall is looking to reduce its space by half and have another tenant lease the vacated portion.

“Orchard is being backfilled by Ace Hardware, which is encouraging.”

While the big store closings are getting a lot of attention, “We are seeing new stores developing,” because the public still wants brick-and-mortar retail and restaurants, but not necessarily in the way big box stores have offered it, Peck said.

Richard Feder, general manager of the Visalia Mall, agreed, noting that more new stores have opened in the region than closed.

“Were looking up this year,” he said, noting that “At the mall, we’ve seem a steady [sales] growth since 2010.”

As for new business, a long-vacant former bank building near the southeast corner of he mall property was demolished in August, and two lease agreements already are awaiting signatures for the adjoining restaurants that will be built there, said Feder, who declined to disclose the names of the two restaurants.

Mike Washam, associate director of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, said that in the unincorporated areas, “We’ve been seeing a consistent, solid growth in permits and development activity.

Most of those involve ag-related businesses, including Setton Farms in Terra Bella riding the growing popularity of pistachios by launching plans to expand its processing facility by a third of its current size over the next four or five years, while Sundale Vineyards, northeast of Tulare, received a use permit last week to expand its plant by 200,000 square feet.

Once that happens, the business is expected to hire 200 additional workers, Washam said.

One area where Tulare County is seeing surprising growth is in the poultry industry, which in the past hasn’t been a huge player in the county’s farm economy.

Of the more than $7.03 billion in ag sales generated in the county last year – a 10.5 percent increase over 2016 sales – poultry ranked 17 among the top ag commodities, with sales totaling $49.9 million.

And that was a decline from $66.8 million in 2016.

But that’s changing, with Foster Farms having built an organic poultry feed mill in the Traver area this year and the county having approved construction of 48 growing houses at five chicken-raising operations, some of which have been completed, Washam said.

The county also is seeing a rise in permits to build dairy farm digesters, which process cow manure to capture the methane gasses they emit to power buildings and vehicles.

“We’re seeing these digesters are a big thing,” with one group of 11 dairies generating enough fuel to sell most of it back to the Southern California Gas Company while also launching plans to build a natural gas fueling station, Washam said.

Next month, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on whether to approve a major office, business and medical complex off Highway 99 near Visalia.

The planned Sequoia Gateway Plaza would encompass more than 113 acres and include a gas station and convenience store, a hotel, restaurants, offices and – most notably – the 60,000-square-foot Valley Children’s Medical Group Specialty Care Center, replacing the smaller clinic the hospital now operates in Visalia.

While not a hospital, Washam said the center would allow children in the southern part of the Valley to be seen for non-emergency and continuing care without having to endure long drives to Children’s Hospital near Madera or having to wait for openings in the smaller, Visalia clinic.

“Hopefully, they will turn dirt on that next spring.”

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