HANFORD – Les Vierra has lived in Hanford all his life – 76 years, to be exact.
He remembers downtown in its late 1960s heyday: dozens of colorful neon signs glowing, lots of people walking around at night, the works.
“You know how the Fox Theatre is all lit up?” he said. “That’s the way it was all downtown.”
Vierra wants to see that splendor, or something like it, restored.
That’s what brought him Monday night to a Main Street Hanford-sponsored meeting designed to drum up both ideas and action for a downtown renaissance.
“I remember when Clovis used to come to us,” Vierra said. “They fixed themselves up pretty good. Now I go to see them.”
While many people at the meeting agreed with Vierra that downtown Hanford isn’t what it used to be, how to return to the glory days was less clear.
For Hanford residents Christina Couture and Desiree Aragon, the meeting was a chance to express their hope for a more vibrant, bustling downtown.
Couture and Aragon don’t hold any official positions in downtown organizations. They described themselves as concerned citizens interested in downtown’s fate.
The two women sat down and shared their thoughts in an interview after the meeting.
Aragon thinks the community of Hanford has to get more involved and care more about downtown.
She knows the very same community is flocking in droves to the 12th Avenue business corridor and the new Costco shopping center.
As those two commercial poles west and east of downtown grow and prosper, the city’s core continues to struggle to create the kind of atmosphere it previously had.
Aragon feels like local residents need to make a conscious choice to support, encourage and work toward bringing in more businesses and activities.
“I think it’s the community banding together to bring back what we once had,” she said.
“[Downtown] is not doing well, but there are people trying,” Couture said.
Aragon said rents for downtown buildings are too high.
Couture said she’s seen business owners close up shop and move away, some to the coast.
Aragon offered some reflections on how downtown might be able to coexist with 12th Avenue and Costco and still thrive.
“It’s not that Wal-Mart didn’t need to come in, but unfortunately there hasn’t been much attention paid to the small business owners,” she said.
Aragon feels that one key to making downtown flourish is to make people feel more safe walking in downtown.
People at the meeting talked about the need for downtown businesses to stay open later and keep the lights on.
Aragon said she remembers that downtown Hanford used to have a good mix of daytime and nighttime activities.
Couture is hoping downtown Hanford can attract people newly stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore, which continues to be in expansion mode.
Couture said she’d like to see a microbrewery/eatery come to downtown Hanford the same way one came to downtown Visalia, but she doesn’t necessarily think locating it in the Bastille is a good idea.
Local real estate investor Jerry Irons had pitched a microbrewery for the Bastille in 2016, but he wanted the city to spend more than $2 million to get the building up to snuff before he’d bring in a microbrewery tenant.
The City Council was considering spending a lot of taxpayer money to fix up the Bastille, but councilmembers killed the idea at the March 21 council meeting after several Hanford residents told them to save the money and spend it on more pressing needs.
Irons, who attended Monday’s meeting, said the City Council lacks leadership on downtown issues.
“The council hasn’t had a direction that they feel they can fund,” he said. “With all due respect, I feel like that’s got to happen. [They] are the leaders. Unless [they] do it, we can’t do it.”
Couture said she’s hopeful that some of the ideas that surfaced Monday night will come to fruition.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some types of changes and improvements soon,” she said.
“I think there’s enough community interest to make things happen, but we need more involvement from the community itself, as a volunteer base,” Aragon said.
Shelly Johnson, executive director of Main Street Hanford, which is the organization funded specifically to make downtown a vibrant place, described Monday’s meeting as an intermediate step in a months-long process to get people in the community more involved.
Johnson said there will be additional meetings to nail down what people can do to help downtown.
She echoed Aragon’s call for more community involvement.
“We want action, not just talking,” Johnson said. “We need to make things happen.”
“The stakeholders are not only [downtown] property owners and business owners,” said Steve Banister, a member of Main Street’s board of directors and co-owner of L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room & Emporium. “They are you, the community.”