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Building Community in the Village of Three Rivers

Sep 27, 2015 09:39PM ● Published by Brandi Barnett

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A River Runs Through It

October 2015
By Jordan Venema

Visalia calls itself the gateway to the sequoias, but practically speaking, that title really belongs to Three Rivers, which could also be called the gateway to the gateway of Sequoia National Park. To valley residents and park tourists, Three Rivers might seem little more than a pit stop en route to the big trees, despite a few legendary fixtures, a la Sierra Subs, Pizza Factory and Reimers drawing the occasional stop. But lately, the sleepy town resting between the reservoir and the park, bounded roughly by North and South Forks, has been waking up.
   
Maybe it’s unfair that Three Rivers has been taken for granted by the lower valley locals. The town’s gems sometimes go unnoticed (like the Kaweah Park Resort, nestled by the river), while most visitors wonder about the businesses that didn’t make it – like the multi-million dollar Shoshone Inn, which closed within a year, and the longer-living but still same-fated Bullene Vineyards.
   
Three Rivers’ sleepy reputation isn’t necessarily the fault of its residents; the town isn’t immune to recession, and other factors have lately played a role. Road construction in the national park diverted some traffic from the 198 to its northern entrances, away from Three Rivers, and the drought not only reduced water levels in the reservoir and river, but also the number of people who would have come through Three Rivers to escape the heat.
   
Despite these factors, over the last year there have been signs of a shakeup between the Forks, as new businesses are popping up and offering more options for locals and visitors alike.
   
Gourmet food truck Ol’ Buckaroo heralded the revitalization, bringing to Three Rivers not just a new menu, but also an influx of new, even regularly returning customers. But add to the mix businesses Main Fork and Co. and Sage Roots, Kaweah River Trading Co., and soon to be Sequoia Snack Shack, and you’ve got a Three Rivers renaissance. What really makes these businesses interesting is that their owners represent a cross section of natives, prodigals and pioneers alike. Whether born here or new here, these entrepreneurs have found a reason to invest in Three Rivers.
   
Natalie Marini is a Los Angeles native who hopes to open Sequoia Snack Shack in the old Sayler Saddlery building (neighboring Ol’ Buckaroo) by early winter. She moved to Three Rivers after her father bought property off South Fork Road. Marini wants her shop to offer customers “the best of the valley.”
   
Sequoia Snack Shack will provide regular hours to complement its neighbors’ schedules, while serving what Marini calls “grab and go” packed foods from local producers like Tulare’s Top O’ the Morn Farms, pastries from Monet’s in Exeter and Visalia’s Slow Train Coffee, as well as some gift items.
   
“When we came to this town, we asked what’s the void, and everybody said early morning, quick and fast coffee,” says Marini. “We’re just trying to fill the need without stepping on others’ toes.”
   
Farther up the road, two businesses share building space, Sage Roots and Main Fork and Co. Monica Rodriguez, who comes “from down the road” in Woodlake, opened Main Fork in May. With its airy, clean design, the candles and the glazed pottery, Main Fork would be just as comfortable along the promenade in Santa Monica as it is here in the foothills.
   
“I like to design stores,” Rodriguez says. “There’s so much potential in Three Rivers… It’s going through a lot of change right now,” and while there’s been a lot of established comfort with some storefronts, “there’s a new generation now.” The question is whether this new generation of businesses will also endure, but for now, Rodriguez says she has a hard time keeping her shelves stocked. Despite Main Fork’s success and popularity, Rodriguez decided to close Main Fork to focus on her local Air B&B.
   
Neighboring Main Fork and Co. is Sage Roots, a small produce shop that looks like a perfectly and permanently displayed farmers’ market stand, set up for a photo shoot. Fruit and produce are separated by colors, displayed in baskets, arranged aesthetically.
   
Sage Roots actually began as a fruit stand outside Ol’ Buckaroo, but since moving to a brick and mortar, Sage has kept its charming accessibility. Besides produce, customers can purchase bulk products, nuts and grains; they plan to open a juice bar soon.
   
Kaweah River Trading Co. opened its doors to offer diverse goods and gifts, something that owner Holly Gallo believes Three Rivers lacked. From local food products to coffee mugs, Plano Jerky and postcards, bumper stickers that read “I’d rather be in Three Rivers,” bookends made from horseshoes and southwestern rugs, Trading Co. offers a little bit of everything.
   
“As locals, it was hard to buy gifts sometimes,” says Gallo, who believes they’ve found a niche in the market. Before she and her business partner opened Trading Co., Gallo had planned to leave Three Rivers. “It was supposed to be a pit stop, but I ended up staying. I was doing odd jobs until I’d leave, and then we ended up doing this instead.” But now that she’s seeing the growth, she’s happier to stay.
   
Gallo hopes these new stores indicate positive growth in Three Rivers, and that collectively they can make their home a destination. “Yeah, once you’re out of that summer season, you’re kind of relying on locals and people from Visalia and from Exeter,” says Gallo. “No one is going to come up for just one restaurant or one store” – it takes a community.
   
Underlying Three Rivers’ recent growth isn’t exactly an economic gold rush. These business owners know the limited market into which they’ve stepped. But it’s likely that money has very little to do with these residents’ decision to stay in or return to Three Rivers. It’s more likely that this new boom says nothing whatsoever about the recession, or the drought, or road construction, or anything about development trends. It’s probably much simpler than that: They believe in what they sell, and like the bumper sticker reads, they mean it – “I’d rather be in Three Rivers.”
 

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