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Industrial development has popped up along West Riggin Avenue, replacing open fields with manufacturing and warehouse space. Photo by Edward Smith.

published on December 11, 2020 - 2:29 PM
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Even as restaurants and small business owners in Tulare County have struggled, others have proceeded as if there was no pandemic at all.

It’s no secret shelter-in-place orders forced many small businesses to close and put even more on the precipice of closing. Bright spots did emerge, however. Major industrial projects in Visalia are poised to bring millions of dollars to the county. Large investors are seeing the value of farmland, and developers are tapping into unincorporated parts of the county, with expansive areas slated for new housing in Goshen, northwest of Visalia. Investment in renewable energy will help fuel future development.

Based on the permitting numbers, it “almost look like there wasn’t a pandemic,” said Michael Washam, associate director for the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.

The opening of the Betty Drive Interchange along Highway 99 has opened up access to industrial areas in Visalia and has made housing in the area feasible. A subdivision by Smee Homes for 400 lots west of Highway 99 was approved. Another 200 units are currently under review on the east side of Highway 99 near the same area.

As people begin moving in, businesses follow, said Washam.

Valley Travel Plaza opened this year with gas pumps for both autos and tractor-trailers. A TA Travel Center will have an AM/PM gas station and several restaurants attached to it. A Tesla charging station will also go in there. Ultimately, the goal is bring a hotel to that development.

After taking the Betty Drive exit, the UPS distribution center opened at Riggin and Plaza avenues, bringing 625 jobs to the area.

A project for 1.3 million square feet also at Plaza and Riggin avenues is rumored to be an Amazon Distribution Center. Washam confirmed the claim, but Devon Jones, economic development manager for the City of Visalia could not confirm the tenant. Jones did say that the project would be completed in summer 2021 and will begin with an initial 700 jobs.

Small business tells a different story than large industrial projects. Uncertainty about the pandemic and the rules that follow has created havoc, says Gail Zurek, president of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce.

At the beginning of the pandemic, business owners had the energy to innovate, but that energy has turned into fatigue. This means fewer small businesses will impact hiring and property values.

The success of small business is contagious. Seeing a local dress shop might encourage someone to open a shoe store.

“As more of those close, my fear is that there is not as much space for people to see how they fit,” Zurek said.

Membership at the Visalia Chamber is diversified, ranging from international corporations to cottage industries. Tourism and entertainment make up only a small percentage of membership, but “those are character-building businesses,” says Zurek. “If we were to lose them we would lose a piece of Visalia.”

Farmland was one industry that was facing pressure from forces outside the pandemic. Despite trade disputes, labor challenges and the loss of food buyers in the food service industry, Marc Schuil, co-owner of Schuil & Associates in Visalia, felt confident enough to be “optimistic” in March about farmland.

Coming off an extra large crop of almonds, many growers were worried about oversupply and the subsequent loss of value in their crop. While almonds did face lower pricing as more acreage came online, major investment groups drove land values upward, said Schuil. Pension funds and insurance companies seeking to diversify portfolios made land purchases, many of them in permanent plantings such as nuts.

Prudential bought land in Corcoran and Harvard University made farm purchases, among others. Because of Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, buyers want at least two sources of water on a property.

“They are looking at SGMA as an opportunity, not a concern,” said Schuil. Farmland that only has access to groundwater will have a harder time selling, he said.

Having major buyers may give aging farmers looking to get out of the business an exit strategy. There are a number of growers who are thinking about transitioning crops. Some of those who aren’t sure about what to plant next are getting out of farming entirely, said Schuil.

Renewable energy investments have spiked in Tulare County. In the next 9-18 months, construction on solar projects near Ducor will begin, employing as many as 1,000 people, said Washam.

About 60 dairies have been building methane recyclers to reduce emissions from cattle over the past few years. Manure lagoons have been covered and emissions are collected and piped through to centralized locations where methane is cleaned and pressurized before going into pipelines to fuel natural gas needs.

Pixley Biogas is the largest methane recycler in the county, connecting 17 dairies and eventually another 28.

Two other biofuel projects are coming in north of Visalia and north of Tulare.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture released $200 million in grants and Tulare County received a “significant” portion of that money, said Washam. That money is covering half of the project cost. Developers are filling the funding gap in hopes to profit off of the fuel. Lagoon projects can cost around $1 million. “A lot of money is being poured into that and it’s showing really good results,” said Washam.

The upward growth trend of the past few years may continue in 2021.

“Industrial growth is going to continue to be a driver in Visalia, but we are seeing new plans come in across all sectors, single-family and multifamily residential, retail and office,” said Jones. “Construction activity is going to continue at a steady pace.”

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