By DAMIAN MANN
Anyone driving Interstate 5 can see downtown Medford’s changing skyline: the new four-story Lithia headquarters with its glass walls, the three-story RCC/SOU Higher Education Center, the 83,000-square-foot library made of steel, brick and stone.
All built within the decade, they hail the start of what could be the most significant building boom in Medford since the turn of the last century.
“Downtown Medford is kind of like what Bend was 10 years ago,” said Mark DeBoer, Lithia Motors vice president of real estate.
In the works are two new parks near Lithia’s headquarters on Bartlett Street called The Commons, a new corporate office complex on West Main Street that’ll be 50 percent larger than Lithia’s headquarters, and a nearly $30 million Jackson County health center with a six-story parking garage at the old federal building on West Eighth Street.
The new office buildings are expected to bring nearly 1,000 employees to downtown. The park blocks will serve as the new staging area for many of Medford’s annual events. And the West Main office complex, housing Pacific Retirement Services, Procare Software and Rogue Disposal and Recycling, is expected to revive an economic dead zone now home to empty furniture stores.
Just when Medford’s downtown will cross that magic line to a major regional draw with a building boom such as Bend’s is up for discussion.
DeBoer said the downtown already has changed for the better, but it could take two to 20 years to reach a critical mass.
Developing a solid employment base downtown will be the main catalyst for change, DeBoer predicted.
He said businesses located in the Highway 62 corridor have expressed interest in moving downtown.
“People just like being downtown,” DeBoer said.
Challenges for Medford leaders and businesses remain, however. Empty storefronts continue to plague downtown, particularly west of the railroad tracks.
Lithia Motors has been unable to fill its retail spaces on the bottom floor, though DeBoer said he hopes to announce something later this year.
The historic Sparta Building at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Main Street underwent a complete renovation, and though the second floor has been filling up, it still needs a tenant on the ground floor.
Slowing down traffic and improving the look of Main Street are other suggestions DeBoer said he’s made to city leaders.
Parking has been an ongoing issue downtown. Lithia has purchased almost every lot in a city block near its headquarters that will satisfy its parking needs for the future, DeBoer said. Discussions are also continuing for the possible purchase of the Red Lion Hotel property, he said.
Not everyone believes that corporate offices are the key to a successful downtown.
“The success of any downtown is measured by how many people are on the street, particularly after 5 p.m.,” said George Kramer, a local historian who has been involved in downtown redevelopment efforts.
He said new office buildings will help generate foot traffic during the day, but won’t have as much of an impact on after-hours businesses.
Any successful downtown offers multiple reasons to visit — at all times of the day, including evenings and weekends, Kramer said.
“What’s really needed is to have something to bring people in from out of town,” he said.
The Craterian is one draw for the evening crowd, and Kramer and many local restaurant owners have been strong proponents for the reopening of the Holly Theatre as a performing arts center.
Most community leaders believe downtown Medford has changed for the better over the past 10 years, shaking off an unflattering reputation.
“I don’t think it’s been Dreadford’ for a long time,” said Rolar Yondorf, one of the owners of Porters Restaurant and Bar. “A lot of people don’t realize that Medford comes alive at night.”
He said the new county health services building will be a vast improvement over the former federal building that housed the post office.
“I’m so happy to see that maximum-security-looking-prison thing go away,” he said.
Yondorf said downtown fell into decline after the Interstate 5 viaduct cut Medford in half during the early 1960s.
He said downtown was dead in the 1990s but has rebounded over the last decade and now boasts 35 restaurants.
Porters opened its doors in 2001, and more restaurants have continued to show interest in the area in recent years.
Yondorf said Ashland’s restaurant industry underwent a similar renaissance in the 1970s.
He said he sees the same opportunity in downtown Medford, though he acknowledges the effort was somewhat easier in Ashland, which has a more focused commercial area. By contrast, Medford is a commercial hub for the region, he said.
“Medford is sort of the mothership for these seven other sibling cities,” he said. “Medford is more diverse, being pulled from several different directions.”
Yondorf’s partner, Brian Porter, said he’s noticed a bump in after-hours business since Lithia opened its doors a few blocks away.
“Every time the Craterian has a performance, sales go up 30 percent,” he said.
If the Holly Theatre ever reopens, Porter said, it would be a major boost for downtown.
While some feel the city center already has changed markedly, others think the real transformation is years away.
Medford Councilman Dick Gordon, who is president of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, said it will take another 10 to 20 years for some of the projects already in the works to bear fruit.
“I don’t think we have the density yet — the daytime population,” Gordon said.
He said there is still another park to build in The Commons. Other properties surrounding Lithia’s headquarters will take years to build.
“We’re trying to position the downtown to have a whole new feel over the next two decades,” Gordon said.
He said downtown will become a center for employment, with corporations and other businesses moving in, along with some entertainment and retail outlets.
Some of MURA’s efforts are not popular, but they’re necessary to support the kind of growth anticipated in the downtown, such as spending money for increased storm-drain capacity, he said.
Gordon said MURA’s job is to provide the mechanisms to support more job-creating enterprises that will provide economic vitality for the region.
“I don’t think we will have a downtown area like Ashland or Jacksonville,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.