Downtown Visalians have lobbied the city to allow them to erect a Visalia mural on a boarded-up wall to be painted in coming weeks.
Written by John Lindt
Visalia businessman Marc Dwelle will be buying Ralph Bookout’s vacant, burned-out property in the 200 block of West Main Street in downtown Visalia, according to both parties. A massive fire destroyed three buildings across from the Fox Theater about year ago, and the site has been boarded up since.
It’s been a gloomy reminder that downtown Visalia will need new investment if it is to continue to thrive and remain that “Jewel of the Valley” people rave about.
Now 47 year-old Dwelle, his brother Brett and a cadre of other young entrepreneurs are busy building the next chapter in and around downtown and are plenty excited about it.
“Visalia has done a good job keeping the core of the city strong, but now it’s going through a transformation,” said Dwelle, who has had a hand in bringing music and the arts to the city in recent years.
Before that, Dwelle was an avid skateboarder helping design and raise money for the Visalia skate park, still popular with teens.
“I grew up on the streets, riding skateboards and listening to punk music,” Dwelle said. “Skateboarding did a lot to straighten some people out.”
Into music as a young man, he recalls, “all my cool friends moved to San Francisco. But I decided to make a go of it at home,” moving back to the area in 1996. Married and growing a family, Dwelle started his business career and ended up owning two local car washes.
But it is downtown Visalia where Dwelle has been more recently focusing.
Dwelle bought Ralph Bookout’s 101 W. Main St. building, also known as the old Security Pacific Bank for those that remember. That happened last January. He brought in the Cellar Door nightclub to fill the ground floor. Now he is both property owner and operator of the popular music venue.
He and Aaron Gomes and others bring big name bands to Visalia on a regular basis — tapping into a West Coast circuit with a stopover here. They operate under the banner of Sound N Vision — an arts and culture foundation committed to enriching the Central Valley through art and live music events.
Like they did a year ago, Dwelle said he and Bookout “did a handshake” on the most recent deal, and he is now busy organizing a team to decide details of what could be a four-story residential, commercial and office complex. Dwelle expects it will be a good fit for downtown, designed to accommodate nearly 40,000 square feet depending on how many stories are built.
For downtown Visalia, the blaze year ago was a major body blow to locals. The Three Alarm fire damaged six local businesses, and one — Cafe 225 — has closed permanently. Others relocated. At the height of the fire, there were nine fire engines and three ladder trucks fighting the midnight inferno. Now all that is left is a plywood wall.
The Dec. 26, 2018 fire damaged the following businesses:
▪ Mama K’s Diner, 233 W. Main – major fire damage
▪ Café 225, 225 W. Main – major fire damage
▪ Acapulco Jewelers, 221 W. Main – major fire damage
▪ Exotica Hair Studio, 301 W. Main – water damage
▪ Little Italy Restaurant, 303 W. Main – water damage
▪ Pacific Treasures, 219 W. Main – smoke damage
At the time, Visalia mayor Bob Link said, “(The Main Street fire) will not affect downtown.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the property will be demolished with probably something even nicer to replace it,” Link added.
Indeed, those old buildings needed upgrading, Dwelle said, and building something nicer is just what is in the works, he vows.
As if to put an exclamation point on the idea, downtown Visalians have lobbied the city to allow them to erect a Visalia mural on the boarded-up wall to be painted in coming weeks.
Dwelle noted there are some key logistics he expects to take advantage of as he tackles this ambitious project. First, its location across from the historic Fox Theatre is a huge plus. Then there is its proximity to both the existing and planned Kaweah Delta towers. Then there is a major parking structure directly behind the site.
Dwelle said he would likely tie into the parking garage with a pedestrian bridge for tenant and customer access. On the ground floor he expects to line up two retail or restaurant tenants. As for medical suites, he said he has had some preliminary discussions along those lines.
“We’ve been working on this for just about a month, so it’s early to offer any specifics,” he said.
Despite the big plans, Dwelle is concerned downtown does not lose “the vibe that got it here.”
“There are lots of new owners and money coming to downtown using the 1031 exchanges” that allow entry into new property without the tax consequences. “We don’t want to lose more of the mom and pop businesses we love to see.”
Dwelle is not alone in his plan to invest in downtown. He admires JR Shannon’s work to launch businesses that cater to younger Visalians along East Main Street and elsewhere. He is also watching Matt Ainley’s Darling Hotel on Court Street to open later this year with a rooftop lounge overlooking the city center.
The 1930s-era, Art Deco-style Darling Hotel in downtown Visalia will not only feature a rooftop lounge and bar but also a new swimming pool and spa to entertain guests.
The 32-room hotel is the former Tulare County Courthouse on Court Street.
“It’s hard to see this amazing building just sitting there abandoned and not being used,” said Ainley, lead developer of the project. “I’m thankful we have the expertise and community support to be able to step in and take a chance to refresh and restore places like this in downtown Visalia.”