Lewis Griswold

Griswold: Visalia's Oval Park struggles to improve reputation

The Peter Frampton Guitar Circus concert slated for Lincoln Oval Park in Visalia this week was supposed to be a coming-out party for the city's oldest park to show the community it's safe to visit again.

The park has long been a homeless magnet and policing problem, and some of the city's poorest neighborhoods are close by.

The Visalia Rescue Mission, which has an office in a city-owned building in the park, came up with the idea of a big-name concert to reintroduce the community to the Oval neighborhood and encourage revitalization.

"We need to attract people to invest in it," said Ryan Stillwater, the rescue mission's Oval venue coordinator and a concert co-promoter.

But the concert was canceled last week, and all signs are that fear won.

The irony is that Oval Park is considered safer now than it has been in years.

The official reason given by Frampton's management agency for the cancellation is that "unforeseen logistical issues" arose.

Ticket sales faltered because the Oval's reputation scared away buyers, said fellow promoter Mike Cavale of Visalia. By contrast, in 2006 when Frampton was last in town, he sold out the Fox Theatre.

Cavale said that he, Stillwater, Frampton's concert producer and the Visalia Rescue Mission, which was to benefit from the concert, pulled the plug to avoid taking a financial bath and hurting the Rescue Mission.

Contrary to rumor, Frampton and other guitarists on the bill -- Buddy Guy and Randy Bachman -- didn't back out of the gig because of negative comments about the park on social media, Cavale said.

"These are '60s rockers who have played every venue possible," he said.

The Oval area includes the park, a business district and nearby neighborhoods.

Last year, the city tore down the public restrooms in the park.

That action changed the tenor of the park, said resident Bill Huott, a neighborhood activist who has made it his personal mission to remove trash and graffiti.

"The drug dealers and their lookouts ran the Oval and they used the bathrooms because they had privacy," he said.

Visalia police Lt. Brian Winter said calls for service fell 20% once the restrooms were removed.

"There's less of the criminal element and it's visibly cleaner and less cluttered," he said.

Another action hailed as a game changer was when the Visalia City Council last year approved an ordinance banning shopping carts -- commonly used by homeless people to transport possessions -- at all parks and on city sidewalks.

Getting rid of shopping carts removed blight, the city said.

"I can tell you the shopping cart ordinance has made a huge difference," said Tracy Robertshaw, the city's neighborhood preservation manager.

Since October, the city has confiscated 1,464 cart citywide, many from the Oval area.

Barbershop owner Carlos Medina owns a building across from Oval Park that he restored.

The park is improved but there's more work to be done, he said: "Let's clean it up completely."

Security lighting and cameras are next, city officials said.

To improve safety, the Visalia council this month approved a new closing time for Lincoln Oval and three other parks: 8 p.m. in summer and 6 p.m. in winter, beginning Sept. 19. Until then, closing time for parks is 10 p.m.

Also, anyone arrested for illegal drug use or violence in a park can be banned from all city parks for a year.

Jesse Vasquez, 66, a retired farmworker from the neighborhood, recently stopped to rest at the gazebo in the park.

"I've been coming here since 1966," he said. "I've never seen it this nice."