The race for Visalia City Council District 3 is heating up with three candidates and only two weeks left before the November 6 election. To air out their differences and similarities the Visalia Chamber of Commerce and the Foothills Sun-Gazette held a forum October 18 at Cafe 210.
District 3 encompasses the western quarter of Visalia, including the Industrial Park that is the fastest growing region of the city. Candidates Merritt Wiseman, Brian Poochigian, and Steve Woods are vying for Mayor Warren Gubler’s council seat. Gubler is retiring.
Should we build an aquatic center and subsidize the Enchanted Playhouse?
The issue that drew out the most ideological differences between the candidates was the Enchanted Playhouse.
Poochigian said that the city council gave the Enchanted Playhouse every opportunity to buy the building but that it did not come up with a reasonable offer. He does not believe that the city should subsidize the playhouse and that there are several other theaters in Visalia the organization can use.
“I think the city council made the right decision. I think the Enchanted Playhouse board could have raised the funds to buy the building but unfortunately they didn’t.”
Wiseman, who is a big fan of Enchanted Playhouse productions and sits on the Fox Theater Board, said, “I do understand the financial side of running a theater. It’s tough. You have to have a good business model, you have to have a good director, and a strong board, and you have to make the difficult decisions.”
Given the financial realities of running a theater, Wiseman accepted the city council’s decision.
“I look forward to sitting on the Fox Theater Board and offering up our space to bring in kids for Enchanted Playhouse productions,” she said.
Woods, on the other hand, believed that the city should have subsidized the Enchanted Playhouse because it has subsidized other organizations that are creative in nature.
“It is unfortunate that the decision was made the way it was made and I disagree with the decision,” said Woods.
He believes that the city could have offered highly reduced rent or granted the organization the building. Woods feels that the Enchanted Playhouse has proved it is financially viable because it paid $3000 a month rent and up to $10,000 a month in electricity bills in the summers because the HVAC units are so old and inefficient. “But they have survived,” he added.
“The city, at any moment over the last 14 years, could have given them the same deal given other organizations that have given so much to our city. $550,000 is a quarter of one percent of our annual budget and it would not have been painful to forgo that building……..we can still go back to the drawing board.”
Wiseman was resigned to the fact that the building has been sold for another purpose. “I am excited to preserve that building and bring in another art form which will be food.”
JR Shannon, a born and bred Visalian, submitted the winning bid and plans on opening a unique-to-the-area restaurant and incorporating part of Garden Plaza in his design for outdoor seating.
The second contentious issue was the affordability of building an aquatic center.
Wiseman liked the idea of Visalia’s having an aquatic center because one of her sons was a swimmer and a water polo player. “We live in the Central Valley and a community pool would be a great amenity,” she said.
But she recognized that city’s budget could not withstand the cost of building a $40 to $150 million facility. She was hopeful that if Measure A passed the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) and the city could collaborate on building an aquatic center.
Poochigian said that right now the city has three big projects in the pipeline: the public safety building, the south side community center, and the aquatic center. “I think we need a pool complex but not at the expense of public safety. That building needs to be built first,” he said.
What concerns Poochigian is that the public safety employees are working in some of the oldest buildings and are spread out over the city. He suggested, after the public safety building is completed, that the south side community center be combined with the aquatic center and collaborate with VUSD in terms of cost.
Woods is the vice chair on the Visalia Parks and Recreation Commission. He said that Parks and Recreation turns a $500,000 a year profit and that he would like to see the money stay within the department and possibly go towards a community pool. Right now the money gets transferred to other departments.
If the aquatic complex had an indoor pool, Woods said that there are configurations that would bring in a 100% return, and some that could even bring a 125% return, because the pool would be used year round. He said building it would be costly but that Parks and Recreation already has the programming in place and they need the additional pool time.
On other issues, such as when asked about how to deal with the homeless, the candidates were not forthcoming with solutions but agreed that it would take a collaborative effort to solve the problem. They agreed on the basics of Visalia’s General Plan, but did not agree on Visalia’s having enough affordable housing.
Poochigian said Visalia is doing a great job of providing affordable housing and Wiseman and Woods said a young person would have a hard time paying rent.
One question not asked that evening was how each candidate would vote on the issue of painting “In God We Trust” above Visalia’s seal in the council chambers. It is an issue close to Council member Steve Nelsen’s heart and he has expressed the intention to bring it back to the council.
All three candidates said they would vote no.
Poochigian said that as a practicing Christian he likes the motto but is a strong believer in the constitution and the separation of church and state.
Woods said “our council chambers are hallowed through the motivations, actions, and words that spring from the hearts of each citizen who stands within it, and advocates for the welfare of their fellow man; not from any words we may place upon its walls.”
“One of the things that makes Visalia great,” said Wiseman, “is that our city is home to a wide diversity of faith groups. As such, I don’t think it would be appropriate to include in council chambers any motto that could offend or exclude people who don’t share the same religious beliefs.
While all the candidates were articulate, loved Visalia, and were obviously very qualified to sit on the dais, they had very different upbringings and would bring a wide range of experiences to the council.
Woods came from a military family and had lived in Mississippi, New York, Italy, the Philippines, and finally settled in Visalia. He joined the Navy himself in 1986 and served eight years as a nuclear power plant instructor and was a supervisor on a ballistic missile submarine.
After retiring from the military he worked for the Tulare Office of Education as its instruction technical specialist where he helped teachers integrate technology into their curriculum.
“I am a collaborative leader. I am a hands-on leader as well. I know that there are sometimes three or four different sides to the issues that come before the city council and I will listen and make the hard decisions.”
Poochigian was born and raised in Visalia, played football for the Mount Whitney Pioneers, and graduated from San Diego State with a major in social science and a minor in history. He is married to a local teacher, has two toddlers, and often finds himself cooking dinner for the family.
His priorities are public safety and roads and he was endorsed by all the public safety officials in Visalia: the Visalia Police Department, Deputy Sheriffs Association, Sheriff Boudreaux, Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman, and Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward.
Poohigian has been on the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) for two years and feels that he will be ready on day one. The CAC advises the city council on local issues.
“I am currently the only candidate from the private sector,” Poochgian said. “I learned that if you miss a phone call, you lose a client and I plan on bringing the same mindset to the city council.”
Wiseman begged to differ that Poochigian was the only candidate from the private sector. Wiseman built a business from the ground up after first subdividing the investment property she bought with a partner. They built a convenience store, gas station and added a restaurant because she is passionate about food.
“I know what it takes to work with the city on both sides of the fence and will work closely with our chamber of commerce.”
Before that, Wiseman worked for the Nabisco Food Group and also sold pharma. She said selling pharma is “hard work where the biggest skill you must have is communication and you have to know how to work as a team.”
After becoming the matriarch of a blended family, she became a full time mom and community volunteer. “I sit on a number of boards and I have a giving heart and a spirit for volunteerism.”
“My reason for stepping up and running for city council is because I want to take that next level of community service. This will be my fulltime job. I have the time and energy and I look forward to being your next city council woman.”