Many civic and business leaders have talked about revitalizing downtown Medford and millions of tax dollars have been spent to upgrade cultural and educational opportunities.
Yet merchants casting their nets in an area roughly bordered by Oakdale and Riverside avenues and Fourth and 10th streets continue to struggle while consumers do business in peripheral shopping centers.
Spurred by the Heart of Medford Association, the downtown area now figures to see more activity thanks to a growing nationwide Main Street program.
Medford has received a Transforming Downtown program designation from the Oregon Community Economic Development Department, giving it access to expertise, training and other opportunities to revitalize its historical core. A formal announcement of the program is scheduled at the Heart of Medford Association meeting at 8 a.m. today at Central Library in Medford.
Medford joins Bandon, Carlton, Dayton, Hillsboro, Klamath Falls, La Grande, Oakridge, Philomath, Riddle, Sandy, St. Johns Town Center and Toledo in the Transforming Downtown program.
"The goal is to put feet on the street," says Betsy Manuel, Heart of Medford Association executive director. "There's a tremendous valid purpose for downtown as a mixed-use environment. It will never ever again be primarily retail; its niche is in providing the whole experience. You don't just go for one thing; you've got to shop, eat and go to a play."
Some 60 Oregon cities and communities — ranging in size from Mitchell (population 100) to Salem (population 150,000) — have been tapped by OECDD to participate in Main Street programs. They receive regional training workshops and help in starting, organizing and planning local programs. Technical assistance comes from historic surveys, community assessments, resource team visits, market analysis and architectural design.
Part of the program capitalizes on historic preservation and relies heavily on marketing and promotion.
Manuel says early efforts will be on a shoestring.
"Once we start delivering," Manuel says, "I think we will get the interest of folks with deep pockets."
When Manuel, the great-great-granddaughter of pioneer Lindsey Applegate, moved back to the Rogue Valley in 1991, it was apparent downtown Medford had seen better days.
"I was very concerned," Manuel recalls. "The retail sector in particular was struggling. The more I looked into it, the more I realized we needed to go deeper than just promotions."
Manuel, whose career included stints with U.S. Bank and Umpqua Bank locally before retiring 10 years ago, says the community has achieved progress in the education, cultural and entertainment realms in recent years.
However, the retail and residential elements in the heart of Medford are found wanting.
"Our downtown is not as vibrant as many communities," says Anne Jenkins of the Medford Visitors and Convention Bureau. "But with this program we can make our downtown a better place to be and hang out as other cities have done. The community as a whole will get to see what Medford can really be."
Manuel says the mission differs from urban renewal or tourism offices, because it's neither centered around infrastructure or aimed specifically at travelers.
The first tangible result of the program will be a brochure featuring about 40 restaurants, cafes and bars in the downtown core.
"We have an inviting downtown space," Manuel says. "Our job is to bring it to life."