Town uses the past to build future
An tourist steered down thrilling, winding Route 198 from Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks into Visalia, Calif., not expecting much. Expecting, in fact, about 27,000 population. But that's what Visalia had in 1970 in California's vast central valley of cotton fields, walnut and pecan trees.
Now the town - its name rhymes with I-sell-ya - is four times bigger. At 107,000 people, in Pennsylvania it might be the third largest city. From nowhere. That's growth.
"We just sold our first million-dollar house," said Nick Anthony. "But housing is a steal - in California terms."
Advertising man Anthony said Visalia is being smart to preserve its past, even the parts that go back only to the 1940s. Hardly anything stands from the founding in 1852, but art deco movie houses and store fronts have been saved from wrecking-ball "redevelopment" a la Pittsburgh, and a walking tour of the historic district reveals places of charm and taste.
The old county jail, for instance, still has bars on the windows, but it's now a commercial building. Wood panels from European courts decorate offices. Walls are hung with paintings and old photos of mustachioed heroes of the past - billiard champions!
"I'm not a collector, I buy things to use," said the recycler, John Vartanian, veteran restaurateur, real estate investor, and onetime Burbank insurance man. Seated at an umbrella table in the patio of his chief center of California cuisine, The Vintage Press, Vantanian said dealers "let me know about things." Then he's off to St. Louis, Paris, wherever an artifact might enrich his dining ambience. A long mahogany bar came from a bygone San Francisco hotel, wall paneling from "the oldest saloon in Wyoming." A platform over patrons' heads is just spacious enough to hold a baby grand piano.
Vartanian's wife, Arlene, said treasures from afar arrive in good condition. Keeping them is the risk. An elegant, frosted gent's room door reached Visalia safely enough but got smashed by a gent in a hurry.
All 11 of the Vartanians' children have worked for them growing up; and two, Greg and David, now head operations at three family eating places. Plus, there's a catering service.
The jail-turned-office building has a new restaurant in its basement, called Jack & Charley's, advertised by flashing neon sign - inside is an antique red telephone booth from London.
Nick Anthony credited lower housing costs, relative to the bigger central valley metropolis of Fresno to the north; plus good schools, an influx of distribution facilities, longer commutes, the phenomenon of people working from home (in sales, for instance), and the Route 198 gateway to the national parks for rousing Visalia from small and sleepy. But a lady at City Hall hinted at the sprawling downsides to growth, too, though seeing her house go over $400,000 value is a kick. "I'd like it to stop," she confided.