Clovis: Not just a gateway, a destination

Clovis is not just a gateway to the sierras anymore, but a destination. In this story, the Roundup’s Valerie Shelton dives into some of the things that make Clovis an attractive destination like its low crime rate, reputable school district, historic downtown and more. (Ron Sundquist/Clovis Roundup)

Traveling north on Clovis Avenue, visitors and residents alike often notice the welcoming neon sign hanging overhead as they enter Old Town Clovis: “Clovis, Gateway to the Sierras” it reads, antique typo and all.

With a population over 100,000 and a gamut of activities to enjoy from the largest rodeo in the state to the famous hot air balloon themed ClovisFest to the ever-expanding farmers market offering a vast selection of locally-grown produce, today’s Clovis is so much more than a fuel stop on the way to Yosemite or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Clovis, in fact, is a destination all on its own.

While the short trek to the nearby Sierra and Central coast are undeniably part of the Central Valley’s appeal, those who have spent anytime in Clovis know it has far more to offer than some of its neighboring cities, which often boast about their proximity to popular tourist destinations as well as the fresh fruits and vegetables only available here in one of the world’s finest agricultural regions. Clovis has long been proud of its agricultural background and clearly its closeness to cooler places as well, but there are several other draws to Clovis that make it a gem all on its own, separating it from other Valley towns.

For visitors, the attraction to Clovis is undoubtedly its Old Town, home to the annual Clovis Rodeo held in April as well as other large-scale events hosted by the city, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Business Organization of Old Town (B.O.O.T.).

By far the biggest event, the Clovis Rodeo will be celebrating its 104th year in 2018 and board member Susan Frantzich said not only is the Clovis Rodeo the largest in the state, but one of the Top 5 rodeos in the nation in terms of attendance. The PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also ranks the Clovis Rodeo as a Gold Tour rodeo and it is designated every year as one of the Top 10 to 15 rodeos on the PRCA circuit, which covers 500 rodeos nationwide.

A participant rides a Bronc during the 103rd annual Clovis Rodeo. (Khone Saysamongdy)

The prestige of the rodeo, Frantzich said, is evidenced by the fact that actor James Pickens Jr. (Dr. Webber on “Grey’s Anatomy”) has decided to hold his annual charity roping event in Clovis the last three years and the popular event has now become a forerunner to the big PRCA rodeo, getting locals and visitors alike in the mood for rodeo season in Clovis.

“The rodeo brings a lot of people and money to town,” Frantzich said. “And now to have James Pickens Jr.’s event here also is a testament to how successful and renowned the Clovis Rodeo is … our rodeo parade is also one of the best parades in California.”

It’s probably no surprise that hotels in Clovis are fully booked well in advance for that last weekend in April, but even citizens may be shocked to learn those Clovis hotels are actually at full occupancy all the time, so much so that at least five new hotels are making their way to Clovis.

Shawn Miller, the business development manager for the city, said many people journey to Clovis to visit the antique shops, while others are simply frequent business travelers who choose to stay Clovis for its amenities.

“It’s funny how that sign says we’re a gateway to somewhere else because many people come specifically to Clovis because they want to be in Clovis, not because they are on their way to somewhere else,” Miller said. “There is something for everyone here. We have antique shops and boutique shops. We have a variety of dining experiences from fast casual to fancy and formal. And then we have a concentration of nightlife in Old Town that is unparalleled anywhere else in the Valley, with 12 bars within walking distance of each other. Not only are they near each other, but the area is also safe.”

Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen also gave his take on the Clovis experience.

“When people experience Old Town Clovis for the first time, they really are pleasantly surprised by the feeling they sense from the place,” Whalen said. “People are friendly, they are safe, there are places to sip carefully crafted coffee and the restaurant choices range from fine dining to pub food. Now we’re starting to notice the live music scene pick up a bit. I think the big draw, though, are the shops in Old Town. Behind every boutique door is a pleasant surprise for those who are tired of big box stores and are looking for a unique item to purchase for themselves or someone they love. Why wouldn’t someone want to come to a place like this?”

The “Clovis, Gateway to the Sierras” sign hangs above Clovis Avenue in Old Town Clovis as traffic passes by. (Daniel Leon/Clovis Roundup)

Greg Sassano, the owner of Sassano’s Men’s Wear, the oldest business in Clovis, and longtime store manager Bob Parks, say Clovis is a great place to do business and the atmosphere in Old Town in particular harkens back to an older time when the Clovis Way of Life was first established.

“When I started here, Shaw [Avenue] was a two-lane dirt road, there was no growth, just some bars until you got to Fresno State which moved out this way in the 60s, then Shaw experienced tremendous growth. It just took off,” Parks said. “But, the Old Town core of Clovis has stayed more or less the same. It’s the same atmosphere, there are no vacancies to speak of and this block here along Pollasky is the heart of where everyone wants to be.”

Parks said it’s not uncommon for him to witness charter buses of people come through from the Bay Area, bringing people to Clovis to specifically hunt for treasures in Old Town antique shops. Some even make the trip just to visit Sassano’s, which is one of the few places carrying sought-after Western wear brands like Pendleton.

“You’d be surprised how often we hear people come in and say, ‘there aren’t any stores like yours,’” Parks said.

While Old Town is the heart of Clovis and its charm draws many visitors, it takes more than cute shops and eateries to turn visitors into residents.

For three years running, Clovis has been designated as the No. 1 city of its size in which to raise a family and that statistic can at least be partially attributed to the success of the Clovis Unified, which has made a name for itself nationwide as one of the leading districts, with an expanding list of accolades in the academic, athletic and artistic arenas. You can’t scan through an issue of the local newspaper in your hands without reading about the success of a CUSD program, team, or student.

Clovis Unified School District’s headquarters on the southeast corner of Herndon and Fowler avenues. (Daniel Leon/Clovis Roundup)

Just a few of the district’s recent accomplishments include: Bonner Character and Civic Education awards for seven schools; all CUSD middle schools designated as National Schools to Watch; Civic Leadership awards for four schools; California Business for Education Honor Roll honors for 23 schools; Gateway High (continuation) recognized as a California Model Continuation School; Fugman Elementary produced the most recent Scripps National Spelling Bee champion Ananya Vinay; Buchanan High produced National History Day award-winning team; Clovis East produced the third highest ranked nationally and top state Future Farmers of America Veterinary Science team; two Buchanan film student’s received student Emmy awards; four schools went to the First Robotics World Championships; 11 student musicians have been invited to perform in the Tournament of Roses Parade; and the district has won one national, two state, two southern regional, 17 out of 23 Valley, and 21 out of 24 League athletic titles.

“In Clovis Unified we believe that people, not school programs, make the positive difference for kids,” CUSD Superintendent Dr. Eimear O’Farrell said. “Families are drawn to Clovis Unified because of the amazing people who work in our schools, and who work every day to help students to be their personal best. Families are drawn to our community and our schools because of our solid reputation for high standards, care for kids, and quality academics and co-curricular programs; and we deliver consistent results that prove our reputation is well-earned.”

With an educational foundation well established in the city, Clovis is now attracting more agencies of higher learning. Currently, Clovis is home to Clovis Community College, the San Joaquin College of Law, and the new California Health Sciences University, which has plans to expand and construct a full-fledged medical school campus in Clovis, right across from Clovis Community Medical Center—another highlight of the Clovis community.

The stellar school system isn’t the only thing that contributed to making Clovis the No. 1 place to live.

Safety, of course, is also high on the priority list for those relocating to Clovis.

Although Police Chief Matt Basgall said he doesn’t like to brag about the department’s accolades, he confirmed that Clovis is currently rated the Safest City in the Central Valley.

Clovis Police vehicles on display at a past Clovis Night Out event. (Michaela Parker)

As positive as the statistic is, Basgall said while Clovis can be considered safe in terms of experiencing less violent crimes than comparable cities, Clovis is of course not immune to crime, with theft and drug crimes still occurring with more frequency than he’d like. With that mind, he chooses not to celebrate the accomplishments of last year, but to always strive to do better and make the city even safer because to Basgall, it’s certainly not a competition for the safest city, the goal is always to do better than the year prior.

Being a safe city, he said, would not be possible without community cooperation, which he said is what really separates Clovis from its neighbors.

“It all starts with the community and people willing to step up and help out because without their tips and their support, our job as a police department would be even harder,” Basgall said. “Clovis is fortunate to have a community that supports law enforcement, with people who are quick to call when they are in need or suspect something isn’t right. Many citizens also get involved in neighborhood watch programs and volunteer, and that helps us catch the bad guys.”

Clovis is not only kind to kids and law enforcement, but is a No. 1 destination for veterans.

According to Lorenzo Rios, the CEO of the Clovis Veterans Memorial District (CVMD), there are approximately 2.2 million veterans in the state of California and close to 20,000 in and around Clovis, including those currently on active duty.

“The Central Valley has one of the largest densities of veterans and in our Central Valley, Clovis takes pride in honoring its veterans,” Rios said.

The mission of the Clovis Veterans Memorial District is to provide a permanent living memorial honoring U.S. Military and Veterans; provide facilities and support programs to promote a legacy of service for preserving the community’s and country’s foundational ideals. (Daniel Leon/Clovis Roundup)

As a veteran who came to Clovis after his service, Rios said the character and sense of community Clovis has is exactly what many veterans need and appreciate when they leave the service.

“As veterans leave the military, they look for a place that has purpose, where there is belonging and where the country they are defending is not taboo or something that is riddled with issues, instead it is still celebrated as a great country where we can take pride in defending. I think that in itself draws people here,” Rios said. “To be honest, when I first arrived in this community, I could not believe this was California. I thought this was only the kind of community you would find somewhere in the Midwest, but I found it here—good wholesome people willing to say welcome to our neighborhood, roll up their sleeves and help us move in. I think those are the attributes that are alluring to our veterans.”

The overall atmosphere and cohesiveness of the city, illuminated by its trail system, outdoor parks and shared community spaces, are also perks Clovis residents, young and old, enjoy.

“The trail has become an amenity and now when you look on Zillow, you often see that the homes facing the trail or next to it are much more prestigious than the ones just one block away and that amenity means something to people,” said City of Clovis Director of Planning and Development Services, Dwight Kroll. “You walk around and you say hi to people you’ve never met before and everyone seems happy. People use it and they are owning it, which is cool.”

Above all, however, Mayor Whalen says it’s the people in the community that make Clovis the unique destination it is today.

“It’s people,” he said. “The people who choose to live in and do business in Clovis value community, safety and education.”

An aerial view of Clovis in 2001. (City of Clovis)
This other aerial shot of Clovis, taken in September 2017, provides a perspective on how much the city has grown and expanded in the last 15+ years. (City of Clovis)