Farmersville City Manager Jennifer Gomez said the Tulare County town needs a big-box retailer, and is hoping a sales-tax rebate is just the incentive needed. Photo by Edward Smith.
Heading east on Highway 198, the signs for Farmersville don’t appear until you’ve reached city limits. If you aren’t looking for the city of 11,000 people, not much will guide you there.
In the city of orchards and one major thoroughfare, until recently most residents who needed groceries or late-night pharmaceuticals had to travel to nearby Visalia. But now, the city is using tax rebates, expanding infrastructure and courting cannabis businesses to bring economic development to the Tulare County town.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the city got its first after-hours pharmacy — a Rite-Aid. It wasn’t until last week it got its full-service grocery store back after a three-year-long hiatus.
Nearly 1,500 residents showed up to celebrate the opening of Sam’s Foods Supermarkets at the corner of Visalia Road and Farmersville Boulevard, some of them even bearing gifts for the opening, said Manager Abel Ahmed. It took a year-and-a-half to ready the 18,700 square foot space. And it took a year before that for owner Adnan Obaid to decide on Farmersville, according to Ahmed.
“When you’ve been here, you know the people are great,” Ahmed said.
Nestled just east of Visalia on the way to Sequoia National Park, Farmersville has long been a bedroom community for its residents, said Mayor Gregorio Gomez.
“We didn’t have anyone carrying the flag in the past,” said Gomez, whose administration and that of former Mayor Paul Boyer helped facilitate the arrival of Rite-Aid and Taco Bell in the city.
What the city now needs is a big-box retailer, said Jennifer Gomez, city manger and no relation to Mayor Gomez.
To help incentivize a Target, Wal-Mart or other retailer to come to town, the Farmersville City Council passed a sales tax rebate proposal this week. The proposal would return up to 50% of sales tax revenue — or $500,000, whichever comes first — to retailers whose footprint exceeds 50,000 square feet and who generate at least $5 million in taxable sales.
“We have a need here in general because all of the residents have to go to Visalia for their shopping,” said Jennifer Gomez.
Those commutes to other cities have also caused “leakage” in terms of lost sales tax revenues that could be going to expanding public works, parks or policing, added Jennifer Gomez.
Cities across Tulare County are discussing bringing in the cannabis industry, but Gomez said aside from Woodlake and Coalinga, Farmersville is the furthest along in that process. Three licenses to sell retail cannabis were approved in March, and the first business to get one is looking at an October opening, with the other two opening later in the year, Mayor Gomez said.
“It’s a regional opportunity,” he said.
The draw of marijuana would increase metrics like car counts that interested companies want to see before dedicating a move to small towns.
In the same vein as the sales tax rebate is another proposal to capture tourist dollars by offering to prospective hoteliers a 50% rebate on a transient occupancy tax. The city council approved the rebate, but the actual tax question will go to voters in March 2020.
The money would be eligible for use in capital improvements in hotels with at least 80 rooms and rated at no fewer than three stars.
“Our location right on Highway 198 is perfect for a hotel for tourists going up to the Sequoias,” said Jennifer. “We’re the last city on the highway. We’d be the last major hotel for people going up to the parks.
Without an economic development department, Jennifer is researching and developing most of these proposals on her own. She had heard about other towns offering rebates on transient taxes through online research.
Mayor Gomez says this kind of small government can be a boon for developers who want to easily navigate regulatory red tape. They can easily be connected with the appropriate person to clear hurdles set up by the government.
What he wants is a distribution center or industrial site to help grow tax dollars and create jobs. To help on that front, the City of Farmersville undertook an $18 million wastewater treatment facility in the southeast part of town. The facility would increase capacity form 1.25 million gallons of water per day. When the expansion is completed it would increase that to 1.4 million gallons.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that increase will support the growth of subdivisions and commercial development.
“We’re not going to need to worry about future development for a while,” Jennifer Gomez said.
Also on the infrastructure front, the city is paying for an expansion of Farmersville Boulevard to four lanes. That means developers don’t have to help foot that bill and can focus capital on their projects.
“Setting the stage [for development] is where we’ve put a lot of effort,” said Mayor Gomez. “So we’re hoping to use that to attract more business.”