Some business and civic leaders in the city of Hanford want to ease the current zoning restrictions created years ago to preserve the city’s downtown. They favor allowing businesses, such as banks, furniture stores, and medical and dental offices, to locate in parts of the city other than downtown.
“Let’s be business-friendly throughout the city,” said Hanford Mayor Justin Mendes. “Sales tax and property tax are our main sources of revenue.”
Last year, the Hanford City Council moved in this direction by changing the zoning ordinance to allow hotels to be built outside of the downtown area.
“We’ve been hosting a lot of sports tournaments and we’ve had a shortage of hotel rooms,” said Mendes, adding that after the zoning change, permits for three hotels were issued, with one project breaking ground.
He argued that cities like Clovis and Visalia have vibrant downtowns – and less zoning restrictions than Hanford.
“We don’t really need to find some clever bullet,” said Mendes. “It’s about what these other cities are very successful at doing. Their shops are open and people want to go there. It’s lively.”
“I don’t agree with the city council when they say it’s ‘wide open’ in Visalia,” said Shelly Talbert, executive director of Main Street Hanford. “They have a convention center in the downtown. They kept the hospital in the downtown. They had a moratorium on building on Mooney Boulevard. All those things have helped them to build this successful downtown. It’s successful planning.”
Mendes agreed with the importance of having a downtown hospital, but blamed a zoning ordinance for the absence of one.
“What Visalia has going for it is the lunch traffic generated by the hospital (Kaweah Delta Medical Center),” he said. “Adventist Health built a hospital on the west side (of Hanford). They went out there because the ordinance made them go out there.”
Downtown Hanford is the area bordered by Highway 198 on the south, 10th Avenue on the east, Ivy Street on the north (plus a six block area that extends to Elm Street), and BNSF Railroad and Park Avenue on the west.
“If you walk around downtown Hanford, you’ll see we have some of the most beautiful historical buildings,” said Talbert. “People come here to get a sense of the history of California. I think to ignore that and to say, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own,’ is probably not an encouraging statement to a business that’s thinking about opening in downtown Hanford. Downtown needs to be nurtured.”
“A lot of people are loyal to downtown,” said Mendes. “I get it. I understand it. But they’re tied to these policies thinking that this is what saves downtown Hanford. These ordinances have been in place for a long time, but downtown Hanford is not alive on the weekends.”
Talbert disagrees. “We have quite a few events – between parks and rec, the chamber and Main Street Hanford,” she said, before acknowledging that there are some improvements she would like to see.
“We’d love to have more people living downtown and more foot traffic,” she said. “Foot traffic is what it’s all about.”
And she noted there are too many vacancies downtown.
“I think we’re at 14% downtown, which is high,” she said. “We had trouble with the recession and we were slow with the uptake. Right now we’re in kind of an upswing. We have several new businesses coming into downtown.”
Talbert strongly believes that the current zoning ordinances need to be kept as they are.
“I think the reason we’re still as vibrant as we are is those ordinances,” she said.
What if the zoning ordinances are changed to make other areas of the city more business-friendly?
“We’re going to lose our downtown,” said Talbert. “We’re going to end up like the city of Fresno. Without smart growth, they grew out to the north without thinking about downtown, and now they’re having just a horrible time bringing people downtown – even with the ballpark.”
About 300 downtown businesses are members of Main Street Hanford.
“Some of those businesses are happy with the status quo,” said Talbert. “Some are not and want to go and expand, but I haven’t heard about any businesses that are saying, ‘I can’t wait for the zoning changes.’”
Talbert has been encouraging people to attend a town hall meeting in the Civic Auditorium on Wednesday, July 27, from 6-8pm to discuss and review proposed changes to the city’s zoning.
“I think it’s really important to have the entire community on board,” she explained. “It can’t just be the downtown businesses. You need the city council and the visitors that come here. It has to be all this plus the community members and the preservationists. They all have to work together for a vibrant downtown.”