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Woodlake Garden May Close

Founders At Odds With City Over Its Future

July19,2017-

Manuel and Olga Jimenez

Manuel and Olga Jimenez

Woodlake has its beer-fest and the annual rodeo that bring out the crowds. But for the past 25 years what many visitors and locals rave about is this small town’s top-notch, 14 acre botanical garden on the banks of Bravo Lake.

Supporters say it has put Woodlake on the map, boosted community pride, helped youth, fostered tourism and added more subtle benefits like the bird count – attracted to the blossoms and blooms.

But now the bloom may be off as the founders, retired farm advisor Manuel Jimenez and wife Olga and their fellow volunteer Woodlake Pride group say they are parting ways with the City of Woodlake who owns the land under the garden.

While this may be about money, the underlying theme for the Jimenez couple appears to be respect.

“The Woodlake Pride board met this week and we decided that we finally have had it.”

“I have to admit – it tugs on my heart. Our board got little teary eyed” admits Manuel.

What is going on here?

Here is what Manuel emailed to City Administrator Ramon Lara on Friday.

As you know well, In recent years, we have been trying unsuccessfully to get the city to provide funds for capital investment projects in the gardens. Last night, our board discussed this matter at length as we have for several years.  And, decided that life is short and we should move on. The Woodlake Pride Board of Directors voted unanimously to terminate the agreement to, develop and maintain Woodlake Botanical Garden.”

Here is some background.

It is a well-known story. The garden is the brainchild of Woodlake natives Olga and Manuel Jimenez who since 1971 have been working with the town’s youth to steer them away from gangs and work to instill pride in their town and culture.

Fighting City Hall

Back then, the pair battled city hall over whether  a mural – painted on a graffiti strewn wall at a corner bar – was legal.The idea was to get youth to beautify this low-income community. The city council at the time, demanded that Jimenez “cease an desist” suggesting he did not have a permit to put up a “sign.” But with help from a volunteer lawyer the city backed down, realizing this painting was “free speech.”

Manuel is a retired UC farm advisor who pioneered techniques to help small farmers in the Central Valley. Among other accomplishment – helping to launch the blueberry industry here.

When people told Manuel some tropical crop he wanted to grow could not tolerate the heat or the cold extremes, he had a real problem taking ‘no for an answer.’ When he stepped down from the UC system five years ago, he was growing tropical fruit like papayas in hoop-houses at Kearny Field Station.

Manuel says before he retired, they made him “remove his 2-acre experimental plot of tropicals  and pay to do it.”

“They yanked them out with a backhoe” he remembers. ”It was like a dagger through the heart”

Now he worries this is all happening again.

Woodlake kids at the garden

Woodlake kids at the garden

 

Manuel and Olga know plants – and it shows. The Woodlake linear garden with its 1.2 mile walkway has 134 varieties of roses and other ornamentals and a unique agricultural botanical garden – some 200 different fruit trees and vines –  a Noah’s Arc-like display of the Valley’s bounty.

As an outdoor classroom, county schools send 30 bus loads of students to tour the garden each year.

Since 1993 Bravo Lake Botanical Garden has been run by Woodlake Pride who as a group volunteered tens of thousands of hours and hustled more than $200,000 worth of donated plants.

Makes You Feel Better

But it is more about the feeling one gets when you tour this place, what was vacant land at the town’s main intersection – just dusty railroad right-of-way along the banks of a levee.

The green patch with its chirping birds is mood altering.

“A visiting woman came up to me after and hour and a half of walking around the garden and told me when she arrived she felt down but now her mood had completely flipped. I feel a whole lot better” she gushed.

Sure the place grows plants but Manuel is fond of saying that more than greenery, ”we grow kids and culture.”

Woodlake has recognized Manuel and Olga’s efforts. In 2015 a mural done by Colleen Mitchell was painted on another wall at the main entrance to Woodlake, honoring Jimenez and the garden.

Funds for the garden are an issue that go deeper. After repeated requests to the City of Woodlake for infrastructure improvements that appeared to Jimenez to fall on deaf ears, a recent presentation  to the city council did not go any better.

“We wanted to show the council a 7 minute video about the garden but they did not seem to be interested” says Olga, who scolded the 5-member, all-Hispanic City Council afterwards.

$1 Million Grant

The crux of the funding dispute between Woodlake Pride and the City is a $1 million TCAG grant awarded to the City a few years ago that Manuel and others say was to be used at least in part, to improve the garden.

The money sits in a TCAG account to be spent as the city requests.

“We’ve given the city a list of about 20 projects we could use including electricity and a fence  to protect our trees – but nothing has happened.”

Manuel told the city council a few months ago that he understands that “TCAG has given the city 27 years to spend the one million” but said he “does not have that much time to wait.”

At age 67, Manuel is wondering how to transition this labor-intensive baby ”while we can still stoop over.”

Secondly, a local farmer, the estate of the late Everett Krakoff, sold the city a 16-acre orange grove with the intent to expand Bravo Lake Garden, about doubling its size, as improvement funds become available.

One potential source of funds for improvements is the income from the orange grove itself, that Jimenez believes is over $30,000 sitting in a city account, that could be released.

Jimenez has reason to feel like this project is his baby and that the city has benefitted in many ways.

When Southern Pacific Railroad put their right of way up for sale, Woodlake City Planner Greg Collins applied for a “Rails To Trails” grant after Manuel made a deal with then, City Manager Bill Lewis, where Jimenez agreed to put in the garden if the city took tittle for the bargain price of $70,000 for the 14 acres – also agreeing to fund water and insurance.

Lara Reacts

So what does the the city say about all this.

Current Administrator Ramon Lara acknowledges the impact of Olga and Manuel’s long-time effort with the youth of Woodlake and the garden.

’It’s just awesome” he agrees.

But he disagrees with Woodlake Pride’s assertions that the city does not cooperate with the project saying the city pays for plenty of expenses at the garden including fuel, spray, insurance, trash, water and putting in a bathroom.

Lara says the garden is budgeted as a city park and will get funding as the city’s needs are met. “We have five major projects in the city including water, roads and community center among others and they take priority.”

Woodlake is looking to bolster its balance sheet by passing two sales tax measures this fall including a cannabis cultivation tax. “For now, things are tight.”

But why lose the reason the town gets visitors? Is there some room for compromise?

Lara says he was surprised to learn the volunteer group no longer wants to work with the city and says ”we are ready to sit down with Manuel,Olga and Woodlake Pride to try work this thing out.”

Not helping is an issue Manuel admits was a mistake recently losing non-profit status for Woodlake Pride due to a paperwork oversight. “We are working to restore that.” Lara says the group no longer qualifies as a non-profit – complicating things.

But Jimenez notes the project requests would improve city property and would not go in any way to Woodlake Pride.

So now what?

Jimenez informed Lara in an email” We will be doing some clean-up and have not set a date when we will turn the garden over to the city. We will let you know as soon as we determine the appropriate date for the transition.”

One member of the city council reportedly said at a meeting that if Woodlake Pride leaves the garden they would just “pull out the plants” because maintaining them cost too much.

Jimenez says it is possible they’ll pull the ag trees and vines out leaving only the botanicals plants.

But there are other possibilities such as forging partnerships with county schools or land trusts and others to keep the garden intact and continue the plan to grow and improve it.

How about crowd sourcing? Check out Woodlake Pride’s Facebook page for more.

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