Written by The Business Journal Staff
Ask Tulare community leaders about the last big commercial development there, and they might say it’s been so long they can’t recall.
Acting City Manager Joe Carlini is looking to change that.
Reports were recently made available to members of the Tulare City Council on a proposal by Carlini’s office to reduce the number of agencies currently overseen by the city’s Community Development Department so staff involved in planning, permitting and development can focus more on serving current and potential developers.
The plan also involves using paid consultants less on development matters and hiring additional city staff, including a second planner and building inspector, to speed up some of the city’s processes for reviewing and approving new commercial and home development.
“What I’m doing is I’m reorganizing that to create a more fluid, user-friendly department,” Carlini said of his plan. “I want to be working with the public, and I want to be working with the developers … and the construction companies to bring more diversified economic development to the city.”
In particular, Carlini wants more big developments, whether it’s manufacturing plants, shopping centers, big home construction or whatever else developers may want to locate in Tulare.
“I think it’s a great move. I think it helps continue the momentum of the city by promoting development in the city by streamlining the bureaucracy and helping those who want to invest in our city have a better experience doing so,” said City Councilman Jose Sigala, who ran on a platform that included promoting development.
As for what type of big development he would like to see, Sigala said Tulare is well positioned to be a “biotech corridor” for companies doing ag-related research, but he also suggested, “Why couldn’t we encourage Hollywood to come here?”
After all, he said, a lot of filming for television and movies isn’t done in big studio complexes anymore but rather inside industrial parks where warehouses are converted into studios.
And Tulare has room for these sort of production companies as well as a mix of environments and communities for location shooting, Sigala noted.
And with so much film work being done digitally, production companies can locate here and collaborate online with businesses in Southern California and other locales involved in different aspects of television and film production.
“We haven’t had a lot of big economic development here” in recent years, Carlini said, adding that even if there was a boom in big developments, “We don’t really have the staff to support the development community.”
Currently, the Tulare Community Development Department includes the city’s planning, housing, economic development, engineering, parks, recreation services and library divisions.
“The size of the department makes it difficult for one department director to manage effectively. The reorganization of the Community Development Department would result in two departments,” requiring the creation of a new Community Services Department that would take over from Community Development overseeing the city’s parks, recreation services and library divisions, according to a report presented to the council members.
That will leave the other departments under Community Development to handle building permits and approvals, development and growth-related work, along with project management, which would shift there from the city manager’s supervision.
“Project Management Division aligns well with economic development and the orderly growth goals of [the] city’s other development-related functions, and its placement alongside those functions would provide for better supervision and coordination,” the report continues.
In addition, Carlini said he wants to hire additional Community Development staff, including a principal planner, a construction manager, a public works inspector and a building inspector to take some of the workload off city staff who currently have a backlog of work, as well as to ensure work pushing building projects forward doesn’t stop when workers go on vacation or sick leave.
All that would be paid for by eliminating the currently vacant deputy city manager’s position to pay the salary of the newly-created Community Services manager’s job, while not using consultants would save the city $683,000 a year that instead would pay for the other new hires, according to the report.
The City Council had been scheduled to vote on Carlini’s proposal on Tuesday, but due to time constrains in that meeting, they opted to postpone the matter until their next scheduled meeting this evening.
“The message we want is to be more development friendly,” in part by having enough people to help developers and get administrative tasks done in a timely manner that doesn’t delay projects.
Some of those problems arose during the recession, when Tulare cut back on staff and contracted with consultants to do some of Community Development’s work, said Traci Myers, Tulare’s deputy community development director.
Like Carlini, she also couldn’t recall the last big commercial development in the city — generally one that brings 50 or more jobs.
The closest she could recall in recent years was construction of the nearly 22,000-square-foot Eco-T Tire & Retreading LLC plant on Tulare’s south end that opened in 2015, but because of heavy automation it employs only 15 to 20 workers.
But the lack of city staff and delays in approvals hasn’t driven off developers. Myers said the recent recession has mostly been the cause — with some new home developments being stopped in the middle of their construction.
And while the economy has improved, resulting in an upswing in smaller commercial and home developments, Tulare still has infrastructure shortfalls that hurt its ability to support large developments.
“When you have to sell the city, you have to sell certain things — water, sewage infrastructure,” Carlini said. “The existing system was having difficulty.”
So the city recently raised its water and sewage rates to get additional dollars to pay for needed improvements that include drilling a new well and building ground-level storage tanks in the city.
“It’s been slow, but we hope the changes resolve those issues,” said Paul Daley, president of Daley Enterprises, a Tulare-based home and commercial development firm.
City officials had hoped that $40 million in improvements completed in late 2015 to the Cartmill Avenue interchange off Highway 99 on Tulare’s north end would have prompted the launch of big developments in that area, but other than a few gas stations and a bank, the open fields around the interchange remain mostly undeveloped.
“We are looking for that area to be the economic jewel of the city,” Carlini said. “But it hasn’t done much because when you have Community
Development and Community Services in one department, divided in eight different divisions, you sometimes are too lean to send people out there to push and shake” the trees looking for development projects, he said.