Peoples Choice

People’s Choice 2019: Local People and Places

Company to Work For

1. Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino

711 Lucky Lane, Coarsegold

(866) 794-6946

In today’s tight job market, the tables have turned — it’s all about the employee experience. And with 1,096 full- and part-time employees, Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino is certainly doing something right.

The roles that help a multi-People’s Choice Award winner run smoothly are wide ranging, including gaming, grounds, housekeeping, maintenance, IT, human resources, marketing and security departments. Deann Kamalani, marketing director, describes the work culture as exciting, fast-paced and high-energy, with 45 percent of employees having been with the company for five-plus years, 35 percent for 10 or more years and 15 percent for 15 or more years.

Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino boasts a full health and wellness package, which includes medical, dental, life, vision, 401k plan and generous ER match. Employees can also take advantage of discount programs for retail and entertainment services, as well as various job and career training classes at no cost.

Top performers are recognized at the company’s monthly, quarterly and annual awards ceremony and dinners, as well as celebrated during Customer Service Week. And at a time when fostering a fun, inclusive environment is of utmost importance, Chukchansi hosts team member barbecues, picnics and contests, and partners with various organizations to offer on-site enrollments for discounted memberships at Costco, Sam’s Club, AAA and more.

2. Granville Homes

Multiple locations

3. De Young Properties

Multiple locations

(559) 656-0600

Family Fun

Zoo
FAMILY FUN: Chisulo, Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s male lion, watches over the African Adventure exhibit. Gary Kazanjian Gary Kazanjian

1. Fresno Chaffee Zoo

894 W. Belmont Ave.

(559) 498-5910

Area families are wild about the zoo — voting it best Family Fun for the second year.

Nowhere else in the Valley can you get up close and personal with one of the zoo’s two two-toed sloths, Esmeralda and Oliver. That’s just one of the several interactive experiences guests can have at the zoo. During the Seal Swim experience, guests will get a tour of the Sea Lion Cove kitchen, where all of the seals’ fish is prepared daily. Then guests get to wade into the behind-the-scenes training pool for an in-water seal training session. Other interactive experiences include meeting African lions, having breakfast with the rhinos and discovering the ins and outs of daily elephant care.

Aside from the interactive experiences, Fresno Chaffee Zoo has numerous exhibits and attractions for guests to peruse. The zoo’s newest attraction, Wilderness Falls, opened in May and allows children to cool off and make a splash in the waterfall, follow the footprints and explore the wilderness, discover the fire lookout tower and more.

A recent addition, African Adventure, emulates the African plains and savannas. African Adventure is a state-of-the-art home for a pride of lions, a family herd of African elephants, cheetahs, white rhinos and a giraffe feeding station with 360-degree views of the savanna. There’s also a dine-in restaurant called the Kopje Lodge, which serves gourmet entrées such as artisan sandwiches, oven-roasted pizza, fresh salads and more. And, for the 21 and older crowd, Kopje Lodge also features beer and wine.

“Visitors may have noticed some construction going on between the flamingo exhibit and the kangaroo area,” says Brandy Gamoning, marketing manager at the zoo. “This is an infrastructure project that will help pave the way for an exciting long-term project, our new Kingdoms of Asia exhibit. This is our largest future project and will house exhibits for the Malayan tigers, Komodo dragons and sloth bears.” The project is scheduled to be completed next year.

Spring brings more events to the zoo, including Breakfast with the Animals on April 13. And spring break means camps for kids who are looking for fun and educational hands-on ways to keep busy during school breaks.

2. Woodward Park

7775 N. Friant Road

(559) 621-2900

3. MB2 Raceway

1200 Shaw Ave., Clovis

(559) 298-7223

Local Festival/ Event

1. Christmas Tree Lane

Christmas Tree Lane is a Valley institution. Located on north Van Ness Boulevard between Shields and Shaw avenues in Fresno, the lane magically transforms itself each December from a quaint neighborhood of stately homes to a winter wonderland. For many longtime Fresnans, a visit to the lane is an absolute must each December.

Here are some figures: About 140 homes and 300 trees are decorated with approximately 2,499,950 lights and holiday displays along the 2-mile stretch. It began in 1920 with a single tree, decorated to honor a child who had passed away. Since that time, the lane has gone dark twice, once in 1941, during WWII and again in 1973, during the energy crisis. In 2007, the lane was featured in Sunset Magazine. In 2010, it was on TLC. In 2014, the Alexander family was featured on ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight” and won.

If you’ve been on the lane, you will know Dean Alexander’s home: It is the one with the big splash of lights at the end, the grand finale, so to speak, that makes you want to go around again.

You can experience Christmas Tree Lane by vehicle or by foot on one of two specially designated walk nights, when the lane is closed to vehicular traffic.

The free event is sponsored by the Fig Garden Homeowners Association. Donations are accepted. Learn more about the lane and its history on its website.

2. The Big Fresno Fair

3. Fresno Taco Truck Throwdown

Local Radio Personality/Team

1. Gnarley Charley and Jody Jo

KISS Country 93.7 FM

After years of working solo and being paired with others, radio personalities Gnarley Charley and Jody Jo finally teamed up, to the delight of KISS Country listeners. “When we weren’t working together, we always wanted to work together,“ Charley says. “I was in another radio relationship. I thought to myself, if I could just be married to her on the radio, it would be so much easier. And the first week we worked together, it was like magic. It was really like finding your dance partner. It’s like, oh my gosh, this is so much easier.”

That was nearly a decade ago, and their radio relationship — Charley says they are like siblings who are also best friends forever — remains strong. And there’s no secret to what makes their morning show a favorite among listeners. Charley, who graduated from Sanger High, and Jody Jo, a Clovis West grad, grew up in the Valley and know their audience.

“In order for us to be relevant — relevant is the key word — we have to be local, because that makes us more relevant than a national show,” Charley says. “We live here, we went to high school here, that makes us different than a show that might be in LA or Nashville. They might have bigger stars on it, but they aren’t local at all.”

Each morning the pair spends their first hour sifting through the day’s news, figuring out what their listeners either are already talking about or will want to hear about. It’s not difficult keeping the show fresh, Charley says, because “every day something that’s different happens in the news, some celebrity dies, somebody gets married, there’s always stuff to talk about.”

Charley and Jody Jo also have connected with their listeners through their personal challenges and tragedies. Jody Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, and Charley’s wife lost her battle with colon cancer two years ago.

“Here we are being funny on the radio, talking about our lives, at the same time we are dealing with real, real serious things, just like everybody,” Charley says. “And we live our lives on the radio. I think they can feel between the lines, we’re not perfect, and we’re not trying to be perfect. Sometimes we’re clunky, sometimes we’re polished, sometimes we’re just real, sometimes we’re babies, sometimes we’re just goofing around, and that’s who we are.”

2. Skippy

New Rock 104.1

3. Greg & Dre

Q97.1 FM

Sportscaster

Ralph Woods
SPORTSCASTER: KMPH Fox 26’s Ralph Wood is a People’s Choice winner.

Ralph Wood

KMPH, FOX TV26

Ralph Wood grew up in San Pedro listening to Hall of Fame broadcasters such as Vin Scully (Dodgers), Chick Hearn (Lakers) and Dick Enberg (Angels and Rams), all role models for a budding sportscaster. The best career advice he got came from Bryant Gumbel, then a sportscaster at KNBC, who mentored Wood and counseled him to “ ‘just be yourself, be Ralph Wood. Don’t try and be Bryant Gumbel,’ even though I liked the way he did things. It was his advice to just be yourself, create your own brand.”

Wood, now in his 38th year as a sportscaster in Fresno, says he thinks that’s why viewers continue to connect with him after so many years. “When I decided I wanted to do sports, I decided to produce a sportscast that I would want to watch. A lot of people want to watch like I want to watch, so they want to watch what I produce.”

After graduating from the University of Southern California, his television career took him in 1978 to a station in Reno where he covered news and sports, and then in 1981 to CBS 47 in Fresno. KMPH offered him the sports director job in 1988.

The big stories he’s covered include Fresno State’s wins in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, the 1983 NIT basketball championship and the College World Series baseball and softball championships. But probably his biggest story — and scoop — was when Fresno State was considering Jerry Tarkanian for the men’s head basketball coaching job in 1995.

“The Tarkanian (story), it had so much intrigue, and who had the better sources,” Wood recalls. “I can remember getting ready to go on the air one night with the story that would basically say that Jerry Tarkanian was going to be hired as the new Fresno State coach. I don’t know if it was a promo from another station or an actual story from the station, the other sportscaster had said that night, just a few hours before I’m supposed to go on, ‘There are two chances that Jerry Tarkanian gets the job at Fresno State, slim and none.’ He and I are 180 degrees apart.

“So I call my source, and I said, ‘This is what I’m hearing, and I know what you’re telling me. This guy is saying it’s not going to happen.’ And he says, ‘Well, Jerry is sitting here right now signing a contract, do you want to talk to him?’ How good is that? I get goosebumps thinking of it right now. So, away it went, and the rest of that is history.”

2. Paul Loeffler

ESPN Radio, 940 AM

3. Andrew Marden

KGPE

Television Anchor

Kopi photo
TELEVISION ANCHOR: When you’re known by only your first name, it says something. Kopi is the People’s Choice winner for Television Anchor and Weathercaster.

1. Kopi Sotiropulos

KMPH, FOX TV26

Kopi Sotiropulos celebrates his “Sweet 16” anniversary this year on KMPH’s “Great Day” morning show, where he works as the show’s anchor and weatherman. He credits his on-air partners — co-anchor Kim Stephens and reporters Tayhana Garcia and Michael Ikahihifo — and behind-the-scenes producers, directors and staffers with helping him keep the program fresh after so many years.

“I feel blessed and honored to be part of that team,” says Sotiropulos, whose work on the show has been Emmy-nominated. “It’s just a good group to work with. It’s a lot of fun — I mean, you get up that early, you better have fun.”

Sotiropulos got his start in television at KMPH in 1971 after graduating from San Francisco State. Back then the station had no news programs so he worked as an advertising copywriter. After six years he headed to Hollywood with his wife Elaine to pursue his dream of acting. A decade later he returned to his adopted hometown of Fresno with Elaine and their two youngsters, Anastasia and Vasili, and in 1991 rejoined KMPH as a weather forecaster. “Great Day” beckoned in 2003.

On the show, “every day is a new day,” he says. “You look forward to what’s happening today, and the future, and you reminisce about the past. You look at what’s happening now and how to make it interesting and fun. And you improvise and go by the seat of your pants.”

Sotiropulos says his role on “Great Day” is not only to entertain but also to provide viewers with accurate information, whether it’s about the weather or local news, to help them be informed and plan their day. “There are moments when it’s serious and you play it straight, and you give it the respect it deserves,” he says. “But we try to have as much fun as possible. Because remember, the typical viewers in the morning will be watching maybe 40 to 45 minutes. A lot of times, it’s in the background so you’ve got to have fun verbally and physically.”

He may well be one of the best recognized faces among Fresno broadcasters because he makes so many public appearances. He particularly likes going to schools to meet with students, many of whom who are immigrants who speak little or no English. Sotiropulos tells them that when his family moved to Fresno from Greece, he started kindergarten at Fremont Elementary speaking only Greek.

2. Graciela Moreno

KFSN, ABC TV30

3. Warren Armstrong

KFSN, ABC TV30

Weathercaster

1. Kopi Sotiropulos

KMPH, FOX TV26

Kopi Sotiropulos already had several careers under his belt — actor, award-winning commercial producer, host of the “Dialing for Dollars” afternoon movie — when KMPH Channel 26 called in 1991 and asked if he would like a job as a weathercaster. It marked his second gig at the station, which had hired him exactly 20 years earlier as a commercial copywriter right after he graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in broadcast communication arts.

“They asked me if I wanted to come back and do weather, which was great,” he said. “I’m not a meteorologist, but they brought a meteorologist in and worked with me, gave me the basics to get things going. And then you learn on the job with the other people who work there.”

In between his Channel 26 jobs, Sotiropulos spent about a decade in Hollywood following his dream of being an actor, landing roles on “Beverly Hills Cop II” and other movies and a variety of TV shows. It’s something he talks about when visiting school kids: “If you’ve got a dream, go for it. I just turned 70, and if I hadn’t gone to Hollywood, I’d be sitting back now saying, ‘Jeez, what would have happened if I’d only tried.’ If there’s something you want to do, do it. Whatever the outcome is, to a certain point it’s immaterial. The thing is, you tried, and you won’t have that regret.”

Sotiropulos, who is as well-known for his sunny personality as for his trademark Hawaiian shirts and colorful ties, jokes that the best season in Fresno for weather forecasting “is summer because it’s easier to predict.” Fresno’s summers remind him of the climate of his homeland, Greece, where the summers also can be scorching. His family emigrated from Greece when he was a small boy and landed in the Valley, where his aunt and uncle already lived.

His favorite season in Fresno? “All the seasons are wonderful because they all have their beauty, their benefits for our economy, for the Valley especially,” Sotiropulos says. “With the winter you need the rain, you need the snow, you need the colder temperatures for the farmers. The summertime is great for the tourism. Every season has its own special blessing, so to speak. So I like all of them.

“But out of all, I like spring. It’s not that cold, and it’s not that hot — although I don’t mind the heat — but that’s the relaxing season for me.”

2. Kevin Musso

KFSN, ABC TV30

3. AJ Fox

KSEE, NBC TV24

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