Exeter Chamber of Commerce Director is concerned with a proposed passenger train station location in the downtown area
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
EXETER – Train travel might be vintage but is it charming? The Exeter Chamber of Commerce isn’t so sure that the return of passenger rail to the small town would be so charming if the station is going to push them out of their building and build a large retail shopping center to cast a shadow on the single-story buildings of its historic downtown.
The train station, platform and associated retail buildings are part of a proposal to use 75 miles of existing railroad tracks to create a passenger rail line stretching from Huron to Porterville. As part of the Cross Valley Corridor Plan, the Tulare County Association of Governments is proposing to connect residents of Tulare and Kings Counties with the High Speed Rail station planned for western Hanford near the intersection of Highways 198 and 43. All of the Cross Valley Corridor Plan’s right-of-way has already been acquired by government entities that are part of the route. Stations would be built in Huron, Lemoore Naval Air Station, Hanford, HSR Kings-Tulare Station, Goshen, Visalia, Farmersville, Exeter, Lindsay and Porterville.
In Exeter, the station is being proposed between Pine and Palm streets along the tracks. The plan is proposing to use part of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce building as the station leading to a platform along the backside of the Chamber property and the Bark Park, across the street from Exeter’s Tracks of Time mural depicting the history of the Visalia Electric Railroad, which connected Visalia, Farmersville, Exeter and Woodlake before it was discontinued in 1924. Sandy Blankenship, executive director of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, said TCAG’s idea was to use part of the Chamber building because it was the original train depot, except that it isn’t. Blankenship said she explained to them that the building has always been occupied by the Chamber (and its predecessor the Board of Trade) since it was built in 1912. The train depot was located on the current site of Valley Convenience Stores’ (VCS) headquarters across the street from the Chamber office and no longer exists.
“I don’t know that it would bring any shoppers to town,” said Blankenship. “I want to think that it would help but I’m not too sure it would.”
Blankenship said she is worried that putting a train station in downtown Exeter might actually hurt businesses indirectly. She said the quaint town’s marketing is built on small town charm which would not mesh well with a proposed a one- to three-story retail shopping center next to the current location of Exeter Hobbies.
“I don’t know that that will look good on Exeter,” Blankenship said. “It would take away from the charm that everyone has come to expect. But I would be open to seeing some vacant land turned into parking lots for our customers.”
Parking is part of the proposal as the dirt lot next to the Bark Park is shown as a developed parking lot for the train station.
Blankenship is also concerned with traffic flow in the downtown area. Similar to AmTrak in her hometown of Hanford, she said when the train is boarding at the station it would block traffic on both Palm and Pine streets, the two major roads connecting downtown on the east side to the commercial corridor along Visalia Road on the west side.
“There will be multiple trains coming through at all hours of the day and even in the morning and afternoon when there is heavy school traffic,” Blankenship said.
When she posed the question at the workshop on Sept.13, she said she was told the plan was very preliminary and that nothing had been decided. Blankenship suggested a station further south just outside the core downtown area where land uses tend to be more industrial. The plan did include an alternative station location behind the Sequoia Orange packing house on G and Pine streets, which would possibly displace the Samurai Dojo and Sequoia Orange sales office.
“I didn’t feel that what I said made much of a difference,” she said.
Ben Kimball, TCAG’s deputy executive director, said station locations are not specific and “speculative at this time.” He said TCAG’s informational workshops are wrapping up this month and that there will be much more discussion on the stations as the project moves forward.
“Further station location planning will take place at a future date, when we are getting close to having the money to start implementation,” Kimball said in an email. He encouraged Tulare County residents to send their comments on the station locations to his email address email@example.com by the end of October.
Others Cities On Board
Outside of Exeter, cities seem relatively on board with the proposed locations of the passenger rail stations. In Lindsay, a station and platform are being proposed behind Sweet Brier Plaza just south of Hermosa Street in a packinghouse north of Cal Citrus Packing. During a community meeting on Oct. 4, Lindsay City Manager Bill Zigler said the City of Lindsay did not have any objections to the location but did say there would be some obstacles.
“I think the biggest obstacle will be acquiring that property,” said Zigler, referring to the packing house behind Sweet Brier Plaza. “But we definitely want it in the downtown area. I would love to see passenger rail here for our children and grandchildren. Those of us who have used it in other places have found it very efficient.”
In Farmersville, the station would be built on Front Street just west of Farmersville Boulevard on a vacant lot between the white chapel and the future sites for the Farmersville Police and Fire stations, creating a second government complex along the existing railroad tracks. City officials did not return calls as of press time.
In Visalia, the train station is being proposed for the corner of Santa Fe and Oak across from the Transit Center where City Hall East is currently located. Oak would be closed between Tipton and Santa Fe to make room for a platform stretching the length of the downtown block. The only comments by city leaders about the station location was to offer an alternative at the Old Lumber Yard just down the street from the proposed station.
Because most of the cities were built around railroad stations, the stations would be located in the downtown areas where they can be connected with local transit centers, bus lines and amenities. Each of the station sites also include plans for displays of public art, walking trails, pedestrian and street improvements for connectivity and safety as well as access to existing bus routes to travel within the city or to adjacent cities, such as Woodlake, Tulare and Dinuba.