Written by The Business Journal Staff
Anticipation is high in Tulare County after a year of steady growth in the economy.
Perhaps the most telling indicator lies in the housing market.
By September, home sales were up 8.5 percent in Tulare County compared to the year before, according to the California Association of Realtors, while home prices jumped nearly 11 percent. The organization also forecasts existing home sales to increase 2.2 percent throughout the Central Valley next year.
While new homes are still in short supply, there is reason to believe residential construction is coming around.
San Joaquin Valley Homes, for instance, recently cut the ribbon on its 84-home Viscaya development in Dinuba and is also working on another 144-home subdivision in Visalia called Pine River Estates.
The city is on track to award 650 residential building permits in 2016 compared to 615 the year before.
Mike Lane, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Tulare and Kings Counties, expects around 1,200 new homes to be built in Tulare County in 2016.
“In terms of permits, we’re at about the same pace as last year,” Lane told The Business Journal recently. “We’re holding our own but clearly not trending upward yet.”
The same is true of commercial construction, which has only outpaced 2015 by some 100 construction permits so far this year.
But just like the residential sector, several projects on the way are shaping up to make the county more appealing to incomers.
Among them, Diversified Development Group is getting close to breaking ground on three spec buildings totaling 402,000 square feet in the Visalia Industrial Park.
Paul Saldana, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation serving Tulare County, said several more developers are expected to wrap up on some 400,000 square feet of spec buildings early next year.
“I would anticipate those being filled before they’re even finished,” Saldana said. “I had a company looking for just shy of 300,000 square feet. If they can wait a few months, that can be accommodated.”
By early next year, GreenPower Motor Company will complete a new 140,000 square-foot factory near the Porterville Airport in which to assemble its electric powered buses, employing some 400 workers.
Saldana also mentioned several manufacturing facilities finalizing agreements to move into existing buildings, further lowering the county’s industrial vacancy rate, which stands at just under four percent.
Even more industrial locations are on the way, he said, as the EDC moves into its fourth year operating the state’s only certified sites program. The program makes the county more marketable to companies by using a consultant to qualify properties that meet certain standards for development.
“We have in excess of 300 acres of land that’s shovel ready,” Saldana said. “We can handle pretty much any size project right away.”
Besides industrial operations, several hotels are on the way as well in Visalia, including a Holiday Inn Express, an Extended Stay and a Residence Inn by Marriott. Joining them are restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A and Outback Steakhouse.
City leaders also hope to revive its tired areas near downtown with several new infill credits and mixed-use zones laid out in its latest general plan update.
“We’re seeing a lot of old tired properties moving,” said Visalia’s Economic Development Manager Devon Jones. “We’re seeing those reused in the form of gyms and fitness center activity.”
Smaller communities are seeing some positive changes as well, including new Rite Aid drug stores in Farmersville and Woodlake and Dollar Generals opening up in towns like Tipton and Strathmore, among others.
Tourism continues to be a boon for a number of Tulare County industries. According to a recent report by Visit California, visitor spending increased 1.7 percent from 2014 to 2015 while total spending shrank 0.7 percent.
Among local lodges, meanwhile, revenues increased 5.6 percent by this past September compared to the year before.
Susan Blanco, tourism and marketing manager of the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said much of the growth has to do with new visitors pouring into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks nearby.
“With this past year 2016 being the centennial (of the National Park Service),” Blanco said, “I think that really bumps up those numbers and I think people we’re reminded of the value of these national parks.”
The agricultural sector has challenges to overcome in 2017. The county’s 2015 crop report valued the area’s overall agricultural output last year at $6.98 billion, a 13.7 percent decline from 2014’s record-setting $8 billion production total.
“Exports are still really strong. Land values are still extremely high,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “I think another tough year of water means another tough year of not having that crystal ball but nut prices are still in high demand internationally”
Despite higher prices for dairy, milk production continues to lead the way, accounting for $1.7 billion of total output in 2015. Also, Last year, field crop production was up 62 percent from 2014.