At first glance, Old Town may seem like a place that hardly ever changes.
With its wide, lantern-lit streets, brick sidewalks, saloon-style bars and antique shops, it’s easy to understand how one might think downtown Clovis has remained the same since it was founded in 1912.
But Old Town was not always the place of specialty shops, coffee cafes and bars. It took decades of hard work and collaboration between city staffers and business owners to make Old Town what you see today.
It began in the 1970s, when Clovis was even further removed from Fresno than it is now. At that time, Old Town was a dilapidated husk of its current self. Its crumbling streets were in desperate need of repair and vacancies were on the rise.
Most of the stores that called it home were mom and pop antique shops, many of which still remain.
City of Clovis Business Development Manager Shawn Miller said it wasn’t until a coalition of business owners united to revitalize the district that the modern Old Town began to take shape.
“Between the 1960s and early 1980s, Old Town had fallen into disrepair,” Miller said. “There was at least a 50 percent vacancy down there. It wasn’t a place where people wanted to go at all, it was not attractive. So some of the property owners got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s have a theme down here. Let’s turn these buildings into cowboy-looking buildings.’”
Many of the property owners Miller mentioned were antique store owners.
“Antiques have always been here and they have always been a part of Clovis, but one of the things people probably do not know is that long ago, the antique dealers banded together to revitalize the city,” Watt said. “The vision was to renew and revitalize the downtown area, which a lot of cities were trying to do at that time, but they didn’t have our base, which were the antique stores.”
The coalition of antique store owners was the first to place a sign near Highway 99 advertising the shops in Old Town.
Watt said Clovis was always associated with cowboys and Old West culture, and business owners chose to capitalize on it.
“They put money up and posted the first sign on the 99 to come to Clovis. They did that in the late 70’s. Back then everybody thought Clovis was the cowboy town and we used that to our benefit,” Watt said.
The business owners collaborated with city councilmembers to explore ways to attract more consumers to Old Town. This led to the farmers market, which draws crowds of customers almost every weekend.
“We all pushed together, we all volunteered, that was key, and we volunteered our time to come up with some events and have more than just the Rodeo. So we came up with ideas for a street fair and the farmers market came out of that,” Watt said.
The hard work paid off. Revitalization efforts resulted in the construction of the street lamps and visitor center, in addition to restored buildings, improved roads, green landscapes and brick sidewalks.
A plaque commemorating those who worked to turn revitalization efforts into a reality was built on Pollasky Avenue. It bears the names of several immediately recognizable Clovis families, including Sassano, Osterburg and Luna.
By the time Miller joined the city’s Economic Development Department in 2003, the focus had shifted to attracting more business. Old Town hosted community events, antique shops and a few stores and restaurants, but still lacked the specialty stores and coffee cafes.
But the antiques stores were all Old Town needed to entice investors, as long as the city used the right strategy, Miller said.
That strategy was to identify what kinds of businesses would work well in Old Town. After that, the city planned to slowly bring in different types of business one category at a time, using the crowds who were already coming through Old Town because of the antique shops and events as an incentive.
“We started identifying those things, and here we are 17 years later, we’ve accomplished more than I dreamed,” Miller said.
He said specialty shops were the first businesses the city wanted.
“When we were first talking about it we wanted like sports cards and collectibles. We wanted stores that were selling something very specific,” Miller said. “That was the logical step, and then after that it expanded. After we got some stores we really wanted some coffee shops.”
That’s when Zack Follett, CEO and founder of Kuppa Joy, came into the picture.
Follett, a Clovis native who retired from professional football in 2011, said coffee shops do more than just serve caffeinated beverages with steamed milk. They also function as community spaces where people – especially young people – could meet up and connect. He knew that was something Old Town was missing.
“You see these cities that have invested into their old towns and brought in new business and you see the cool factor and that it’s a place where people want to be,” Follett said. “Our Old Town hadn’t made that turn yet… I knew I had a mission to start a coffee shop and now the big question was where?”
He continued, “One thing that really struck me was there was no meeting place in between Shaw and Herndon. It was either you go to where the movie theater is or you go somewhere on Herndon. I saw that there was nowhere in the middle, so that’s what drew me to Old Town. With the coffee shop thing, the biggest mission was to connect the community and I just thought Old Town Clovis was the heart of the Clovis community.”
Customers waiting to get their caffeine fix stood in lines that stretched out the door when Kuppa Joy opened in 2012. Along with On the Edge, which opened the same year, Clovis finally had not one but two coffee shops where the community could gather and connect.
“I was a little nervous because here we are in Old Town and I’m thinking about all the cowboys that probably want their black coffee for a dollar, and I’m going to come in here and serve them fruity coffee for four dollars and you have to wait five minutes for it,” Follett joked.
“We opened and the first day we had a line out the door and we never really looked back. The community embraced us really well because now we have a place to connect.”
With coffee came younger crowds, who kept Old Town busy into the night. Follett said kick-starting nightlife was one of his goals with Kuppa Joy.
“There were always the antique stores, but after 5 p.m. it was dead. So one of my goals was bringing nightlife here, that’s why we strategically had our hours open late. So we became a nighttime hangout here until we closed at 9 p.m.”
Today, diverse crowds of all ages walk the streets of Old Town. As Clovis grows and new businesses move in, Old Town is changing faster than ever.
Vera Linton, an author who works at Good Ol’ Days Antique Store, can attest to that.
“What’s exciting about this place is the mix of old and new business. The new business owners, they’re young. There are a lot of new entrepreneurs too and I think that brings different kinds of people down here,” Linton said.
But despite all the new business and people, some things still remain the same. Linton said Old Town’s tight-knit community of business owners has always been what made the town special. Just like in the 1970’s, the antique stores owners are still the center of the community, acting as the glue that holds it together.
“We are a community here, we support each other in that fashion. In Old Town we can say, ‘Hey, go talk to Sue down the street,’ and Sue says, ‘Hey go talk to Good Ol’ Days,’” Linton said.
Watt said she is happy to see the town evolve and is optimistic that, despite all the change, Old Town will always retain what makes it special.
“I love change. Things are going to change with or without you, so you might as well get on board. Be the change that attracts people, that attracts industry, that attracts customers and tourists,” Watt said. “Downtown Clovis is an experience that has grown and changed over time and it will continue to grow. We’ll get other stores in, different people will come, new stores might take over old ones, but I hope it will always keep its uniqueness.”