The Beautification of Small Town USA

The walkway behind the Woodlake City Hall. Julia Jimenez/Valley Voice
The walkway behind the Woodlake City Hall. Julia Jimenez/Valley Voice

Tulare County’ smallest incorporated town is making big changes. In the last three years Woodlake has improved its downtown, residential areas and infrastructure.

“I was proud to say I was from Woodlake. I even pulled over to take pictures since I hadn’t been there in a year,” said a Tulare County local who grew up in Woodlake.

Rudy Mendoza, Mayor of Woodlake said, “It’s true, we’ve seen a lot of beautiful things happening in this community. It seems as though we are having a renaissance.”

In 2013 the city commenced its facelift by building a new transit center. The property was sold to the city for half the price by a Leonard Whitney, and in turn the city decided to name it the Whitney Transit Center. Funds for the acquisition of the land and construction came from prop 1B money which is allocated to all Tulare County cities for transportation costs. Initially the city council discussed building a bay for its buses, but saw a need for safer access to public transportation and responded to their residents’ need.

Also in 2013, a Family Dollar moved in next to the Pizza Factory, and a Dollar General opened a new store on Naranjo Boulevard and Palm Avenue. Just this year a full sized Rite Aid, built on the empty lot across from the city park, opened and has a drive through pharmacy window.

Mendoza said now the community has more shopping options and that boosts confidence in investing in downtown. Ramon Lara, City Manager, said that there were no vacancies downtown.

In 2014 Woodlake embarked on beautifying its streets by putting in crosswalks with bollards, landscaping, ornate street lights and patterned sidewalk. The renovations run the length of downtown from Bravo Street to Whitney Avenue. In the next six months the city will continue the street beautification to Sierra Avenue. From there a new housing development, Valencia Heights, is scheduled to break ground late fall and the developer will complete the sidewalks to Wutchumna Avenue.

The centerpiece of Woodlake’s main thoroughfare is the newly opened roundabout on Naranjo Boulevard and Valencia Boulevard. The roundabout and curbs will be landscaped in the coming weeks.

Just opened this February is the Woodlake Valley Cultural Museum next to the fire station on Magnolia Street. The museum is a repository of 150 years of Woodlake’s history and Native American heritage. “Now those treasures are out where the public can enjoy them and remember,” said Marsha Ingrao, Woodlake Chamber of Commerce secretary.

Rudy Garcia, Chamber of Commerce president, presented the idea of the museum to the city council, which in turn designated a vacant piece of land on Magnolia Street to be used as a building site. Ed Michum, of Oral E. Michum Inc., donated the materials and John Wood constructed the building. Their generous donations have made it possible for the Museum to be owned free and clear of a mortgage.

The construction of the building took nine months to complete while the collecting and displaying of artifacts took two years to organize.

Construction has started on Woodlake’s Community Center and City Plaza. With the completion of these two amenities, Woodlake will become a bonefide two thoroughfare town. Instead of just a main street, Woodlake will have two shopping and cultural arteries on Valencia Boulevard and Magnolia Street that will be connected by a winding path that will pass by the city’s murals.

The Community Center will be a place where Woodlake can relocate their library and provide space for the senior center, among other things. The plaza will sport a stage for special events or concerts.

Mendoza said that the revitalization started with the downtown and now is focused on residential and commercial projects. There is a new commercial project coming soon but Mendoza could not say who it was until the paperwork is finalized. Across the street from the Presbyterian Church on Naranjo Boulevard will be residential development of 170 units. The property owners put together a parcel map and the city council is behind them 100% to find a developer.

Mendoza said that there are a lot of people who want to live in Woodlake but there isn’t the inventory available of new houses.

So what changed in the last few years?

Mendoza said that the city council looked at themselves one day and said, “we can do better than this.”

Lara said the change in attitude started about four years ago. The council got more aggressive about involving the community and hiring young, qualified, motivated staff with the right priorities.

Mendoza added that Woodlake is the only town in Tulare County that has a local economic development board. The board is made up of nine members from the community and local business owners and works hand-in-hand with the council on economic development.

Now most of the city staff and council grew up in Woodlake and they put time into serving the community even after work. “There is more of a buy-in now,” Lara said. He said that even staff that lives in Visalia can be seen at the Woodlake pool helping out with the county programs like Summer Night Lights.

Mendoza said, “We don’t just wait for things to happen. We are going out and talking to people and telling them that this is a jewel and you need to be a part of it.”

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