Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a multi-part series on the history of Old Town Clovis, as told by Larry W. Gamble, a member of the Central Clovis Steering Committee in the 1980s. The committee provided input to the City Council on what would eventually become Old Town Clovis.
“Watch what you say about our town.” That admonishment was leveled at me recently when I stated, “As a matter of fact, in the late 1960s and early 70s, the original bustling Clovis commercial district was in decline as shoppers flocked to the new, trendy regional shopping centers.”
I was quickly reminded the downtown area was always busy and shopping there was a proud tradition of local people who shared many experiences and nostalgic memories of this little area. I hastily clarified my intent so my friend would not take umbrage.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. My observation was simply an acknowledgment of changes having taken place during the past 50 years. Early on, it was a busy place. You are correct. Clovis was a comfortable, quiet town removed from the larger city of Fresno, and most people were happy with the small community. After all, Clovis was and is, ‘A Way of Life.’”
By the 1970s, things were changing for downtown — and not necessarily for the better. I, too, have vivid memories when I think about the changes. So I was moved to write down some of my own memories and experiences in downtown Clovis during this period.
This article is a personal perspective about one of the most creative and innovative transitions the community of Clovis ever experienced. There were undoubtedly things happening in city hall and the streets of Clovis of which I was not aware, so if I leave someone out who made significant contributions to the project, please forgive me.
I was honored to have participated in the process in the late 1970s. So, too, were Bob Burkheimer, Fred Osterberg, Doug and Terri May, Cecil Hill, Dave Head and many others.
In 1984, there was a transformation of the original shopping area into a most beautiful, vibrant retail space. It became known as Old Town Clovis. How did it happen that Clovis moved in one direction while so many other small communities in the area remained the same?
It wasn’t magic, but the changes, in effect, seemed magical. The result reflects the hard work of the city council and staff combined with the efforts of many dedicated people from the downtown community. Each group did their part in preserving the intimacy of the original shopping area.
They were individuals who loved Clovis and mustered up the energy to make positive things happen. They were people who had a clear vision of the city’s potential and a belief in its ability to change for the better while preserving qualities of quaintness. All that was needed was a little urging, a lot of love and money.
Public infrastructure was in desperate need of improvement. Streets flooded in the winter. Cracked and broken sidewalks caused injuries. The economic reality for businesses was that tax revenue was in freefall. Decreasing revenue was generated by stores. Rents in downtown were low and vacancies were increasing. That meant the owners did not have the capital to fix their buildings.
Each year new regional shopping opportunities were taking shoppers away from the central core of Clovis in greater numbers. It became more and more difficult to compete with product diversity, pricing and selection of these new centers. Downtown Clovis supermarkets and drugstores were closed.
Most places of business were not open on Sunday, so a tumbleweed could literally roll down Pollasky Avenue and never hit a customer or a parked vehicle. In some respects, it gave the effect of an early West ghost town. Buildings such as the old DeWitt lay partly vacant with physical deterioration slowly creeping into its aging walls.
But for every frustration, there was also a chance to improve the situation. While the economy and prosperity of downtown were declining, opportunities began to appear for people who were willing to take a risk. My wife and I were two such people.
In June of 1977, Sylvia and I invested in an old commercial building on Fifth Street. Built in 1932, it was not in particularly good condition. It still had the original wiring, water pipes, and structural timbers.
We hoped to improve the building sometime in the future, but in the interim, it was all we could do to keep a tenant and make critical repairs. Sylvia and I were hoping the area might experience an economic resurgence as downtown Sacramento had done. Such a change would be dependent on a responsive City Council, an aggressive revitalization plan, and millions of dollars to rebuild the infrastructure. If such a proposal were developed, adopted and implemented, our investment might be worthwhile. Should this area continue to deteriorate, our choice to invest in Clovis would have been an unfortunate decision.
Thankfully, the community of Clovis had some very forward-thinking visionaries.
In the early 1980s, Harry Armstrong, Stan King, Peggy Bos, Gene Papenhausen, Dennis Prindiville and later, Tom Stearn were on the Clovis City Council. They understood the need to improve the situation and with great vision and foresight, courageously took the necessary actions.
The Clovis Planning Department, under the leadership of director John R. Wright, assisted by Jeff Witte and Dwight Kroll, developed a “Central Clovis Specific Plan.”
Many people worked on the project. A group of individuals from the community and the affected area were appointed by the City Council and provided input. The group became known as the “Central Clovis Steering Committee.” Participants included local merchants, residents and property owners who had a vested interest in the central business district.
Early committee members included Don Bremseth, John Coffman, Bob Davis, Bob Dugger, Cecil Hill, James Hyde, Charlotte Nunn, Fred and Suzi Osterberg, Wayne and Roberta Rhode and Larry and Sylvia Gamble. Under the direction of John Wright, the group met monthly for several years.
The proposed area of study was defined as Clovis Avenue to DeWitt Street and 3rd to 7th Streets, about a 12-block area.The study was divided into five parts: intent and scope of the plan; analysis of existing conditions; proposed changes including purpose, goals, and policies; land use and circulation plan; and implementation of the document.
By 1983, a draft was submitted and adopted by the Clovis City Council. The final Central Clovis Specific Plan was accepted with plans to:
1. Improve the appearance and the economic vitality of the Central Business District. 2. Make the Central Business Area competitive with the peripheral commercial areas. 3. Maintain central Clovis as the center for public and government facilities. 4. Increase the economic diversity in the Central Business area. 5. Create a pedestrian-oriented main street environment with interlocking brick at sidewalks and intersections, planting green landscaping accented by trees, bushes and planter boxes. Lighting would be provided by antique fixtures atop period steel posts. Their design later became the area logo. 6. Preserve and stabilize adjacent single-family neighborhoods. 7. Encourage in-fill development of vacant or under-utilized parcels of land. 8. Preserve historic and architecturally significant buildings.
The concept of tax incremental financing was adopted to secure redevelopment funding. Spending was carefully administered by Michael Prandini, finance director. The newly formed Clovis Development Agency under Mike Dozier would oversee and facilitate the project in phases. The Central Clovis Specific Plan was the basis for the miraculous rebirth of Central Business District.
This new “pedestrian-oriented shopping district” was appropriately named Old Town Clovis. A bronze plaque on Pollasky Avenue commemorates the many people who worked diligently to realize the completion of the massive project.
To accomplish a “turn-of-the-century feel,” the development of a document titled Old Town Clovis Design Guidelines was created and adopted to assist property owners to invest in appropriate architectural design elements to better reflect the period.
Plastic facades from otherwise beautiful antique buildings were torn away making visible the charming architectural details that had been there all along. Visitors immediately saw this quaint area in a new light.
Our building qualified for a low-interest loan from Clovis Community Bank. We combined that money with funds from a second mortgage loan on our home. A total investment of $100,000 allowed our contractor to update the building by replacing the original water pipes, electrical wiring and adding central air conditioning and heating. Earthquake resistant structural elements were added to improve safety during a potential event. Our contractor also reconfigured the interior walls, built new handicapped accessible bathrooms, installed alarm systems and added new doors and windows. Our two sons, Rob and Johannes Gamble, joined us in restoring the original oak floors. We sanded, stained and sealed the oak to preserve their natural beauty. The building reflected a new look and life. When we were finished, we had a lovely turn-of-the-century appearance while retaining the original charm of the building. That made us very proud. Other building owners renovated their investments as well.
While the work of the elected officials and city staff was remarkable, it alone would not have been enough. There was another group of people integral to the subsequent success enjoyed by the business community of Old Town Clovis.
It was these family-owned businesses that made a real difference. Familiar names such as Sassano, Osterburg, Sarantos, Rhode, Luna and Shipley; they were the business owners, the “moms” and “pops” who worked diligently, day after day, week after week to assure the success of their family operation. They presented the welcome smile from behind the counter and the shoppers just knew they took great pride and personal care of their customers’ needs. After all, it was their business, and they stood behind it.
Soon new property owners and the men and women of business made long-term commitments to the area. More shops opened. This larger group of people now had one thing in common. They were entirely dedicated to making this revival succeed to everyone’s mutual benefit. And succeed it did.
Part Two of this series will highlight some of the individuals from the City of Clovis who worked diligently to bring this redevelopment project from concept to reality.