There is a fundraising effort underway to revitalize Oval Park in Visalia, which includes a current campaign at Indiegogo.com and an August 29th concert headlined by Frampton’s Guitar Circus, starring Grammy-winner Peter Frampton and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Buddy Guy.
“In 2011, the City of Visalia recruited the Visalia Rescue Mission to revitalize Oval Park and the surrounding neighborhood,” according to the campaign page at Indiegogo. “More commonly referred to as ‘The Oval,’ it is considered by locals to be Visalia’s ground-zero for crime, homelessness and similar community problems, but times are changing. There has never been such a concerted effort to change the dynamic of this park and its negative perception, to attract blossoming businesses, and to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the whole community.”
“It’s not so much about raising money as it is to spread the word,” explained Ryan Stillwater, Oval Venue coordinator for the Visalia Rescue Mission, who wants people “to think of the park as an asset rather than a liability.”
Stillwater knows the perceptions many Visalians have about Oval Park, which he believes have a negative impact on the neighborhood. He noted that a nearby historic home, built in 1905, was just put on the market for less than $80,000 – an indication of the problem he wants to solve.
“A good park radiates value to the surrounding neighborhood,” Stillwater said, citing studies by the American Planning Association that show success other cities have had in economic development in the areas near revitalized city parks that are now used for arts and cultural events. “We’re not the only city facing problems like this,” he said, adding that he wants to follow the lead of cities such as St. Petersburg, Florida, which have had success in this area.
“For this neighborhood, Oval Park is its biggest asset,” Stillwater said, adding that people aren’t making full use of it. “All these families walk in for an Easter egg hunt and leave right after,” he said. “There’s something wrong with this picture. Kids play catch in their small backyards when there’s this park nearby. Perception is the biggest enemy, that you’ll step on a needle or be accosted or propositioned.”
“Oval Park has a rich history,” said Visalia City Manager Mike Olmos. “It’s one of the core areas of the original city and it retains a lot of the original charm. It’s probably the oldest park in the city, and it has had some struggles in more recent years – homelessness, gangs. The city has put a lot of resources in the area to deal with these things.”
In 2009, the City of Visalia received a $135,000 Environmental Justice Context Sensitive Planning Grant from Caltrans to evaluate traffic and pedestrian conditions and recommendations for improvements in the Lincoln Oval Park area. Caltrans also committed to contributing at least $200,000, and the city was awarded a $500,000 grant from the FHWA Highway Safety Improvement Program for improvements in this area.
Also that year, with a combination of Community Development Block Grant funds, Prop 40 State Park Grant Funds and a State Conservation Grant – a total of $435,000 – nearby Village Park and the interior of the Wittman Center were renovated. The old playground was replaced as part of the renovation and other improvements included a new irrigation system, shrubs and trees, turf, basketball surface and hoops, park security lighting, a water fountain and fencing and gates.
Using Community Development Block Grant funds and a $69,854 grant from Southern California Edison, the city installed solar-powered LED street lights in Oval Park in May 2012. In addition, the city leases Wittman Center to Proteus and pays about $100,000 annually to operate it. The city also maintains the adjacent park, which includes basketball courts, turfed area and park playground.
“The city has made a very big effort there and we continue to support the park by making improvements and applying for grants,” Olmos added, noting the city’s recent application for a $181,000 Department of Housing grant. “We don’t know if we’ll get that or any of it, but we will know by June.”
Stillwater looks forward to proposed Oval Park upgrades, such as a walking path around the perimeter, increased lighting and security cameras, a fence on the east side, a new playground and an amphitheater.
“The city is supporting Ryan and the Rescue Mission in this effort,” said Olmos, adding that the city has worked to get Calrans to close State Highway 63 and reroute traffic during the August 29 concert. “It’s the first time in the city there’s ever been a venue as big as the park.”
Last year, the city gave the Visalia Rescue Mission access to the community center in Oval Park to provide services and events.
“It’s important for the city for every park to be vibrant,” Olmos added. “We have 50 parks in the city and every one is important.”
When Stillwater used his reputation as a concert promoter to get Frampton and Guy to headline the August 29 concert at Oval Park, the choice of venue surprised many Visalians.
“It’s unorthodox, but not unheard of,” said Stillwater, who acknowledged that the park does not have its own stage, sound equipment or concert lighting. “I worked with (Frampton and Guy) before and they know I have the experience to execute an event of this size.”
Other Oval Park events are currently in the planning stages, such as an opera and a night of worship, but so far, no events specifically target the local Hispanic community.
“It’s not that we’re avoiding doing them; we’re going to do shows for the community at large,” Stilllwater explained. “There hasn’t been enough done to kick the engine over, to get people thinking differently about the park.”
The Indiegogo campaign, which will run until June 9th, has a financial goal of raising $5,000, according to Stillwater. For $5, contributors will receive a new Oval Park Compilation featuring 10 songs from Visalia singer/songwriters. For $10, donors receive an Oval Park t-shirt. An Oval Park hat is the reward for a $20 contribution, and $25 donors receive all three of these items. Show sponsors ($1,000) and “Park Revitalizers” ($5,000) receive tickets, recognition and other perks.
For more information about the park or the campaign, visit www.ovalpark.org.