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From Nowheresville to 'Lindsayland'

After a fallow period, farming town Lindsay has sprung back to life, thanks in large part to its shiny new sports center that's drawing visitors from throughout Tulare County.

October 13, 2009|Catherine Saillant

LINDSAY — A decade ago, Lindsay was the Central Valley town that the middle class had abandoned.

Its farm economy was in tatters and its downtown looked tired and deserted. An influx of immigrant farm laborers, combined with white flight, made it one of the poorest cities in Tulare County.

But the forgotten city of 10,500, located off state Highway 65 southeast of Visalia, is undergoing something of a rebirth.

A large downtown plaza has been redesigned and lushly landscaped, drawing 5,000 people for a Friday night farmers market. A new aquatic center and library have been added, and a new high school and a wellness center are in the works.

This summer, downtown sidewalks were widened in a fashionable and pedestrian-friendly brick. The city added new street lamps, scores of shade trees and 36 stately palms that are bathed in vibrant color each night like a line of Vegas showgirls.

But the makeover's showstopper lies in a former packinghouse just off Hermosa Street, the city's main thoroughfare. Last year, city leaders unveiled McDermont Field House, a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex that sprawls for nearly a city block.

The three-acre center houses basketball courts, arena soccer fields, a huge laser tag battlefield, a 100-foot-high rock-climbing wall, a fitness center, a boxing ring, a full arcade, a zip line and a giant faux sequoia treehouse.

A slot car track was recently added. And in a town where a curl means a hairstyle, McDermont's popular indoor surf machine, the FlowRider, allows locals to ride a wave like a Huntington Beach pro.

"I've never been to the ocean," said Jose Leal, 16, born and raised in Lindsay to farmworker parents, after an energetic session cutting and pivoting atop his board. "This is where I learned to surf."

The $18-million project, dubbed "Lindsayland" by a local paper, has become a magnet for families in the southern Central Valley. Drawing heavily from the nearby bigger cities of Tulare, Visalia and Porterville, the complex has logged 500,000 visits in its first year, city officials said.

Lindsay's changing look and new energy has some rethinking their opinion of the city.

"I can't tell you how many times I hear, 'We moved too soon,' " said Marie Arroyo, 43, a third-generation resident.

Jose Chavez, 36, a truck driver, is one of those who used to live in Lindsay. Now he lives 20 minutes away in Farmersville. He returns to Lindsay three times a week to play basketball at McDermont.

"People are saying, 'What's going on in Lindsay?' " he said. "I never thought something like this would happen in a little town."

The city owns McDermont and charges visitors to use its amenities. It rents out space inside the center for dinners and special events. Although the city initially subsidized McDermont's $3.5-million operating cost, the center is now self-sustaining, city officials said.

Town leaders believe McDermont's attractions will benefit not only Lindsay's residents but also its downtown businesses. It's just a short walk from the entertainment complex to outside retail stores and restaurants, said Scot Townsend, Lindsay's city manager.

On a recent weekend, McDermont Field House hosted a regional car show and a chili cook-off that drew thousands of visitors to the downtown area. McDermont has also been a job generator, employing hundreds of laborers during its construction, Townsend said. Though that phase has ended, about 100 residents work at the fieldhouse year-round, making it one of the largest employers in the city.

"Our long-term thought is that it can be a moneymaker that returns sales tax dollars to our city," Townsend said of the renovation investments. "And that will mean we can add more police officers, pave more streets and do all the things that cities do."

Not everyone is happy. Longtime residents complain that potholes are going unfixed while money is spent on McDermont. Others view the renovated downtown plaza, where salsa bands play at the Friday market, as "too Mexico," said Mayor Ed Murray.

The City Council is unapologetic. Latinos make up 78% of the city, and many of them enjoy walking and socializing in public squares, Murray said.

"That's our population. That's what we have," said Murray, who works in the local citrus industry and says he's a fan of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. "We could make the market Anglo-oriented and we'd have 35 people."

Before building McDermont, city leaders traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to look at some of its sports complexes, Murray said. Then they added not one, but two, arena soccer fields to the sports center's design.

"We wanted to build something for everyone in the community, regardless of their economic status," he said.

Lindsay's roots lie solidly in agriculture, incorporating 99 years ago as one of several citrus and dairy towns dotting Tulare County. Farming provided jobs and a vibrant livelihood for decades. When Murray arrived in town 35 years ago, there were plenty of stores and two car dealerships, he said.

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