Sam Sciacca – A Lifetime in Visalia

Sam Sciacca at work. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

If you know Sam Sciacca, you know he tells a good story. He is, indeed, a good salesman, and he loves downtown Visalia.

Sciacca did not have an easy childhood. The Visalia native was the only child to immigrant parents from Sicily, although he does have a half-sister. His dad, who was a farmer, worked hard and expected the same from his son.

“My life was always about work – always about selling,” Sciacca said. “At the age of seven, my father put me in the asparagus business. He raised a bed of asparagus, and he would bundle it into two-pound bundles, and I would go out on the streets in the neighborhood and sell two pounds for 25 cents. It got to be a huge business – by the time I was 9 years old, I was taking 100 orders a week.

“As soon as I finished my asparagus sales, I got a paper route, and I worked for Real Fresh Milk and I had a part time job working for A&W. I would work at Real Fresh from 5:30am – 1:30pm. I’d go home and sleep. I’d get up and 4 and go to work at A&W from 5-11pm during the summer. And during the school year, then I’d just work the A&W job.

“I was always working – I had the desire to make money at an early age. My father taught me that you will never get ahead in this world unless you work. He told me that life is not sitting on the couch watching TV.”

High School, Family Background and College

Sciacca attended high school at Mt. Whitney and studied industrial technology. Extra-curricular activities were not to be.

“Playing football was not in the cards. I had a tough time playing baseball [in high school],” he said. “My father didn’t even know about it. I couldn’t tell him, because if I did, I couldn’t play, so the coach did me a big favor, he let me play when I could play. There were times I couldn’t go to games. I played once in a while – it was not an everyday deal. My dad never knew I played baseball.”

His father encouraged him to become an auto mechanic.

“I thought I wanted to be an automobile mechanic, because my father kept pushing me to do a trade and mechanics seemed to be a trade that he liked,” Sciacca said. “My dad was set on my being a mechanic, not a farmer like he was, ‘I don’t want you to work as hard as me.’

Sciacca’s dad was one of a large family of siblings who moved to California during the 1930’s. Each time one of the seven brothers or five sisters moved, they’d send money back to home to help the next sibling move, he said. His father had been divorced, and decided he wanted to find a Sicilian bride, so he went back to his home country – he found her and the next day there were married. His father brought his mother back to California and they had Sam within a couple years.

“My father bought the property on Tulare Ave. and Burke St., which is right in the middle of city limits today and I have kept that property. One of the reasons I have not sold it, is because I wanted my kids to see what he did – I barely had reached 20 years old when he had passed away,” Sciacca said.

“So, I decided I was not going to sell his property – I was going to keep it. Little did I know that I was going to be in the real estate business.”

After high school, Sciacca attended College of the Sequoias.

“I was mixed up – I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had worked for Bob Cary at the A&W drive-in starting at the age of 14.”

After graduating COS, he enrolled in Fresno State and got into their industrial technology program and studied to be a teacher. Just prior to his graduating his father passed away. He finished up, but could not find a teaching job.

“I decided that my mother was here by herself – I had no brothers and sisters,” he said. “She couldn’t drive – she could barely speak English, and I decided to move back to Visalia and watch her, and take care of her – so that she had somebody.

“I was lost, I didn’t know what to do, so I went back to work for Bob Cary and he built a new restaurant on Mooney Blvd. and he hired me to run that restaurant. So, I was the manager of that store for five years.

“I decided maybe I could have a career in the restaurant business.”

At the same time, Sciacca was farming walnuts.

“I decided I would continue to farm the property that my dad bought when he came here from Sicily. I started becoming familiar with raising walnuts at a real early age and I was running the walnut dehydrator, probably at the age of 10. My dad was managing it, but I was working in it. We had a small walnut orchard, it was only 17 acres – so it wasn’t a full-time job – whenever my dad needed me, I was helping him. But, I learned how to run the walnut dehydrator and I learned how to raise walnuts and how to take care of them – all through high school.”

Around this time, Sciacca had a brief first marriage.

“Because of my work habits,” he said. “I admit it. I’ll tell the whole world out there, that because of my being a workaholic, I lost my first marriage. I didn’t spend any social time. I was all about work.”

The Beginnings of a Career in Real Estate

As if he didn’t have enough to do, Sciacca also started farming walnuts for other people.

“I met this man Pete Manuele – his property was here in Visalia and I was shaking the walnuts and doing all the work for the Manuele family. One day I went to his office to pick up a check, and I sat down with him and he asked me if I ever thought about getting into real estate.

I said, ‘are you kidding me? I can’t sell anything – I could barely sell asparagus when I was seven years old.’

“With real estate – I would have to learn about land and descriptions and he said, ‘why don’t you go to Anthony Schools [of Real Estate]?’

“Alright,’ – so I went to Anthony Schools and got an education.

“Then I signed up to take my real estate exam. And, I took it three times. I couldn’t pass the test. Finally, the third time, I passed. So, I went back to Pete Manuele and I said, ‘Pete, I’ve passed the test, and I’ve quit my job, can you tell me what I need to do now?’

“And, he kind of laughed, and said, ‘well, that’s your problem now,’ and kind of walked away. He turned me on to Bill Jordan.

“Ironically, Bill Jordan had come to me when I was at A&W to try to buy my father’s property. Well, I told Bill Jordan, ‘Get away from me.’ I didn’t want to talk with him. I rudely told him to go away. Little did I know that in 1978, I would be at his doorstep asking him for a job.

“He remembered. He said to me, ‘I don’t hire people without experience.’ I just kept on bugging him.

“I said, ‘I think I can do this. My father has had property in Visalia since the 1930’s.

“And he asked, ‘well, had your father every sold real estate?’

“’Well, no, but he owned it.’

“‘Well, what do you know about it?’

“I said, ‘I know how to harvest walnuts. I know how to run a walnut dehydrator. And, besides that, I’ll make you money. I sold asparagus when I was 7 years old. I know how to sell real estate – I know how to do this. Give me a break.’

“He thought about it. And, I was the very first agent he ever hired that had no experience. That was 40 years ago. I’ve been with his company – that he just sold – for 39 years. I will have sold real estate for 40 years in March of 2018”

Sciacca attributes his success to the facts that he loves people and loves putting transactions together.

“The real estate industry is very difficult,” he said. “We are working with some property that doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to our client. We have to be able to market something that doesn’t belong to us. I learned the way to do it, because of trial and error – mistakes that I made through the 40 years and the new people that I met that were more talented than me – that taught me things,” he said.

Influences

Sciacca says many people influenced his life, and he named a few.

“Al Sindlinger was the auto shop teacher at COS. “He was one of the biggest reasons I went to college – I don’t know if I would have gone to college [further on to Fresno State].

“Another man at COS, Joe Gaurisco was the dean of industrial technology – he convinced me to get into secondary education field, and I got my teaching credential.

“Both of the men became clients. I never forgot either one of them – both of them were very self-motivated people. And they saw something and convinced me that I could do.”

Sciacca went on to say, that while he didn’t end up in a profession that he studied in college, he does not feel any of that time was wasted.

“When I got into real estate, I quit my job at A&W and I started working long hours. My dad used to tell me if you’re going to be successful in the world . . .”

Tears filled Sciacca’s eyes as he spoke.

“Who is my biggest reason, that I am successful? My father.

“He thought I was lazy. He told me that many times. He said, ‘you don’t work as hard as I do. You don’t put in the hours that I put in. You need to understand, son, if you’re going to be successful in this world, you’ve got to work. You can’t go on vacations, you can’t go out to dinner, you can’t do those things’ – so, I had never been to a hamburger place until I was 20 years old (except working at A&W). I never went to the theatre, I never went to a show. He wouldn’t let me buy a class ring, he wouldn’t let me buy a yearbook. I never went to a dance. I didn’t do any of that – all I did was work as a kid.

“So, my biggest influence, after my father had died, was my [second] wife. Marlene stood with me all the way. She was there for everything. She worked at First American Title. She’d get up at 5am, I was still sleeping, because I got home at 11pm. I got up at 7am – she was gone. When she came home at 5pm, I was here working until 11pm. I got home – the plate had cellophane on it and it was ready to put in the microwave, so I would eat dinner at 11 at night, and she’d be asleep.

“That went on for 20 years. She supported everything I did and she knew, I guess, that we would be successful. She waited it out and if you ask her today, ‘was it worth it?’ she would tell you, ‘yes.’

Developments and Family

But Sciacca had not just settled for a career in real estate – he went on to become a property owner and developer.

“My family bought land in Sicily – my grandfather owned land in Sicily; my father’s brothers and sisters owned land, here in Visalia – Burke and Tulare was my dad’s, Conyer and Walnut was my uncle’s, Mary’s Vineyard was my aunt’s,” he said. “I don’t know how they knew to, but they all bought land.

“People tell me that I didn’t just go to Pete Manuelle and learn to be a real estate agent because it was a fluke – it was in my blood. How could I not get into the business?

“My very first project was a lot and I bought a house, and there was a lot next to it and we split it and bought another house. I thought, wow, that’s pretty good. Then I bought a rental house, then I bought another rental house.

“So, I started buying land and I’d say maybe 10 or 15 years into the business I hooked up with a guy named Mike Fistolera and some other builders, the Williamson (brothers) family. I watched these builders and they started buying lots to build houses. They were buying lots from developers and they were building houses and selling the houses. And I decided I am going to try this – I like this. I don’t think I am going to build, but I like buying more land.

“I bought my first piece of [development] property on Houston and Giddings from Les Jamieson – he was a big developer in Visalia. It was kind of an awkward deal, he said, ‘you just give me so much down and I’ll carry the balance – you can pay me when you get all the lots developed. And, I am going to give you a horse to bet on – he was a horse guy – if you win, then you’ve got to pay me interest. If the horse loses, you don’t have to pay me any interest.’ The horse lost.

“So I ended up buying it with practically no money down. He built the houses and we developed 44 lots and it was called Houston Acres – my very first project.

“That went on for about 20 years, and I still sold real estate – my passion was listing and selling real estate. During that time, a lot of things happened. I had kids.”

The Sciaccas have four children – Shane, Marlene’s son, who came into Sam’s life when they were married; Chet; Concetto, named after his grandfather Sciacca; Michele Margarita, whose middle name is after her grandmother Sciacca; and Gina, named after a nickname of her grandmother Sciacca.

Life Goals and God

“The last person who influenced my life was Bill Jordan,” Sciacca said. “Bill Jordan probably taught me more about real estate than any other person how to analyze people, how to figure out what properties were a good buy, how to determine costs and expenses. And, because of that I showed my loyalty to him for 39 years.

“What I really, really desired to do was to build an estate so that my family would never have to worry about anything.”

Sciacca is a man of God, he said. And, his first goal and priority is to Him.

“My second goal in my life – other than trying to be happy with God, and making sure to do the things that He tells me to do – is to make sure that I take care of my wife,” he said, “to make sure that she is really in good shape.

“These are my goals, today, and third of all is my family – I want to make sure that my family is in good shape.

“And then, money comes after that – after God, my wife, my family – then I worry about making money, so that I can support them.

“Let me tell you how it was before I realized those were more important – money was first, money was second and money was third – there was no wife, there was no family. I was not a very nice person.

“I’ve done very well,” Sciacca said. “We finished several projects. But, the most dramatic project that I have done in my life was to help my kids.”

The Sciaccas first purchased the Chelsea Street Boutique about 30 years ago and moved it from its rental location, to a property on Mooney Blvd., which Sam purchased and developed into a five-unit retail development. They thought it was a project they would work on together, but it turned out just to be another job for Marlene – so they sold it. The new owner, turned it into a bridal boutique, and let go of the name.

Finishing college, the Sciaccas’ daughter, Gina, wanted to get into design, but couldn’t find a job she was happy with. Sam suggested a clothing boutique, and so, they purchased the Togni-Branch Stationers building on Main St. with the intent of it being developed into the family’s clothing business and they again opened Chelsea Street Boutique at that location.

“Finally, I decided that above Chelsea Street Boutique, there was space up there that wasn’t being used – it was storage,” Sciacca said. “I told Marlene, you know what, we’ve got this space up there that we’re not doing anything with. What do you think if we build an apartment up there?”

The Sciaccas had been to Sicily to see where his family had come from, and had found that his mother, along with a sister, had lived in an apartment over a boutique where she had sold hats.

“My mom lived above commercial development. So, I got the idea that if they can do it in Sicily, and become successful. Why can’t we do it in Visalia?

Potential Fall Out

“I was finding myself looking for another residential over commercial – couldn’t find anything. I ended up buying a large piece of property on the north side of Visalia that I was intentionally going to use for development.

“We had a financial meltdown in 2009. A lot of things created a tough market.

“The big boy builders – they no longer bought lots. The days of developing lands and selling lots to the builder started drying up. And, I had all this land up there with the intention to develop and it wasn’t happening. I had over 20 lots in this subdivision that I couldn’t get sold – nobody wanted to buy lots anymore.

“I wasn’t sure what to do. Then, I had another 60 acres – all zoned, but I was reluctant to develop. We even considered giving the property back to the bank.

“What now, Sam?

“I get a phone call – the Visalia Unified School District calling me, saying, well not in these words, but ‘Mr. Sciacca, we want to build a school on the property that you were going to give back to the bank – that you were going to walk away from – we want to buy it.’

“In 2009, we had more debt than we had income – we had servicing debt, and I said, ‘yeah, I’ll sell it to you!’

“We closed the escrow and liquidated that debt.”

And then,

“‘Hello, Sam, this is Lennar Homes, we’d like to buy the rest of your property.’

“I couldn’t believe it. The first call was the Visalia Unified School District. The second call was Lennar Homes. And there was a third call. And it was from DR Horton.

“‘Hi Sam, this is DR Horton, we’d like to buy the rest of your land.’

“I was dumbfounded. I realized that if I sold all of this land now – that I hadn’t planned on – that the tax consequences would be so high that I would not know how I would be able to get through it. About that time, the phone rang again.

“‘Sam, this is Bob Link. Hey, I need to talk to you. I want to sell my building across the street [on Main St.]’ and I had looked at it a long time ago. I had said, ‘you guys need to put residential upstairs.’

“They didn’t do it – they had a clothing store.

“I bought it – I subdivided the bottom – I built a beautiful salon, I build a beautiful wine bar. And, then for three years, I worked on residential and now the most dramatic project I have ever done and we named it, kind of after my mother. We call it Casa de Sciacca – the Sciacca home.

“They all said I was crazy.

“‘Have you heard about Sciacca? He’s lost his mind. He sold $2 million worth of property – he traded for the Links Building, and he traded for a multi-million dollar walnut dehydrator in Farmersville – called the Moody Walnut Dryer.’”

Sciacca and his son purchased the Moody Walnut Dryer, at his son’s suggestion, wanting to take his grandfather’s old walnut dryer and remodel it to do a higher volume.

“The Sciaccas did a 1031 tax deferred exchange paying off the loan, so that debt was basically vacated, took the rest of the property and bought the Links’ building – now generating income from that, and we bought the Moody Walnut Dryer and basically improved it and it did close to $1 million last year in gross revenue,” Sciacca said.

Downtown Visalia

Sciacca has fond memories of the downtown area from his childhood, working at A&W, and now owns property there.

“Who taught me to love downtown, was Bob Cary,” Sciacca said. “Bob Cary was running the Jaycee’s, he was putting a little hot dog stand on Main St., and he was part of the Downtown Visalians.

“So, I decided that since I had a store on Main St., I was going to have a mission – to make our downtown the most successful downtown in the San Joaquin Valley. So, that’s my hobby, besides being a pilot. I love the downtown. My passion is the downtown.

“My wife has been the president of the Downtown Association. She’s leaving in June – she termed out. I don’t want the Sciacca name to go away. I’m sorry, I think the Sciacca name needs to stay downtown – I’m like a mother hen with her chicks. Sam Sciacca is going to run for board of directors and I am going to get on that board and I’m going to be part of it – which I never have done. I have helped with promotions – sidewalk sales, expo, anything you can think of. But, I’ve decided that it’s time for Sam Sciacca to be part of Downtown Visalia – I think it’s time.

Winding Down

“My other motivation is to try to spend more time with my kids and wind this real estate career down, so Mr. Chet Sciacca can pick up where I’ve left off,” Sciacca said. “I have a daughter who is picking up where my wife left off [in Chelsea Street Boutique].

“I think that my developing career is just about done. I think that there will be one more project and I’m going to tell you what it is. I believe that the last real estate project that I will do will be north of the so-called scenic corridor, between Preston and Shirk. There’s an 11-acre walnut orchard out there. Along the freeway, the first 200-feet is the designated scenic corridor. The council has endorsed zoning there to keep that Ag.

“So, I’m involved with them on a walnut orchard that I planted for the city and I maintain it. Next to that, where that 11 acres is, there’s a house. North of the house, there is about eight acres left. I’ve owned that walnut orchard for almost 35 years. And I feel that I need to develop that.

“I won’t develop where I live. I live on the corner of Burke and Tulare, and people have asked me, ‘when are you going to develop that?’

“That was my father’s. My kids to come to visit and they see that and they say, ‘that’s our grandpa’s.’

Tears welled up in his eyes, again.

“I never got to see them with my dad. It hurts me inside that my dad never got to see his grandkids,” he said. “If he was alive today, he would say that ‘my son is doing it right. He’s not selling my property, he’s farming – he’s doing all the things I wanted him to do, except he’s not fixing the cars – he’s not a mechanic.’

“I didn’t want to fix cars.”

Other Activities

Sciacca volunteers for the Downtown Expo, which raises funds for battling breast cancer by donating to the American Cancer Society. He has worked closely with the Portuguese community, as that is Marlene’s heritage. He also has long worked with the Sons of Italy, helping with an annual fashion show to raise funds for hospice care.

As a father, Sciacca coached basketball to be close to his daughter, who played, and baseball, to be close with his son.

He is also a hobbyist pilot.

The family has a home on the coast. He loves to dance, and he loves eating tri-tip sandwiches, he said.

The Sciaccas have been married for “39 wonderful years,” he said. “And, when I go home, I am excited about seeing her again. Every time I come home, I can’t wait to see my wife.”

Watch the Valley Voice for an upcoming article on the Sciacca development of the downtown former Links building on Main St. including the eight residential units upstairs.

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