Reassurances offered on fate of downtown project

Forced to move her business to make way for a proposed redevelopment project called The Commons, Linda Dupray said she found it a little ironic the Medford complex may be stalled.

"This morning when I heard about it, I laughed and laughed and laughed until the tears came rolling down my face," said the owner of Superior Stamp and Sign Co.

The centerpiece of The Commons, a 10-story headquarters building for Medford-based Lithia Motors, was put on hold after the auto retailer announced Monday it will defer uncommitted capital expenditures as part of cost-cutting measures.

Mark Rivers, development partner for Lithia, said the $169 million project, designed to revitalize downtown with help from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, might face delays, but it won't be stopped.

"You've got in Lithia a community stalwart who wants to find a way to do good things for the downtown," he said.

Rivers and city officials say they believe the project will be a boon to downtown, despite a few stumbling blocks along the way.

Rivers said Lithia remains committed to building The Commons even as it weighs its financial situation. He did not know how long Lithia may delay building its headquarters.

"I think the economic downturn is casting a shadow on a lot of projects around the country," Rivers said.

He said he may suggest a new approach to the project while meeting with Lithia and MURA officials next week. Instead of erecting the new corporate headquarters at the outset, they could build other aspects of the project first to keep it moving forward, he said.

The Commons, bordered by Central and Riverside avenues and Jackson and Sixth streets and including park blocks, retail and residential units, was originally estimated to take about five years to build. Rivers said delaying a year or two would not be a significant setback, considering it's a substantial investment in downtown Medford.

Delays are nothing unusual in a project of this size, he added. A similar project in Boise, Idaho, known as "BoDo," also faced hurdles before it was completed, he said.

He said he doesn't see the potential for another Bella Vita, a residential complex in downtown Medford that was eventually scuttled by the developer.

"The potential is too great for us not to get our arms around it," said Rivers.

Lithia has already made a substantial financial investment in the project, which Rivers described as in the "seven figures."

Bill Hoke, deputy city manager in Medford, said he expects The Commons to go forward and hasn't heard anything from Lithia to the contrary.

"They have not told me that the project is not going to occur," he said. "We're moving forward."

Even though the average person might not see any progress, Hoke said there have been significant advances so far.

The city has acquired properties, environmental reviews are being conducted, a new Greyhound terminal is being built on Front Street, a larger water line has been installed on Riverside Avenue and various historical, site and transportation reviews have taken place.

"You can't do them all overnight," he said.

He said Lithia still plans to build the park blocks within The Commons and then deed them over to the city.

So far, Lithia has remained within the time lines originally set for the project, said Hoke.

He cautioned people not to read too much into the situation.

"It's a lot more involved and a lot bigger project than going out and building a department store," he said.

MURA board member Claudette Moore said The Commons might not come together as quickly as she or the community would like.

"I don't see it going the way of the Bella Vita," said Moore. "Lithia is too strong of a company."

Terrie Martin, interim executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, said her expectation is that Lithia will renew its $10,500 monthly lease on the former History Center building on Central Avenue at the end of August.

She said the historical society has had no word from Lithia on the possibility of exercising its option to buy the building, which would become part of The Commons.

Martin said the Lithia lease is a good source of income for the historical society, which has struggled with declining revenues.

"It's our number one thing we can count on each month," she said. "It is a good partnership for us as well."

Anna Tollefson, owner of Sweet Water Cafe in the Greyhound terminal, said she's not happy that Lithia is losing money, but she believes the city of Medford is disregarding her plight as she faces the loss of her business this August when the terminal is relocated.

"I was told to my face by MURA that they don't owe me anything," she said. "One of the most important things in life are small businesses and stuff like that is going away."

MURA is building a new Greyhound terminal, but Tollefson said there won't be enough room for her to relocate there. She said rent for other buildings is extremely high compared to what she's paying now.

Tollefson said she worries that as a single mother she will end up losing her livelihood and so will her employees.

Dupray of Superior Stamp said she still has hard feelings over the city's suggestion that it might use eminent domain if she didn't sell her building. She went from owning a business outright to now paying a lease for her new location on East Jackson Street.

Dupray said she expects the city will find out just what kind of bargain it entered into over The Commons.

"I just wished the city of Medford and MURA had looked closely at this rather than being led by the carrot," she said. "All they saw was the dollars in their eyes. They didn't look at the hardships."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.