CENTRAL POINT — Despite speeding trucks and a forest of orange cones and construction equipment a few feet from the Rogue Creamery's front door, co-owner and cheese maker David Gremmels could only smile as he imagined relaxing on an outdoor patio after the city's western entrance is transformed from dangerous and nondescript to a pedestrian destination.
Work began Monday for $1.1 million in upgrades to the area along Highway 99 dubbed Front Street — between Crater High School and Pine Street.
Some $928,000 of the project budget came from state bicycle and pedestrian dollars to include wide sidewalks, landscaping, trees, a planted median and lighting to improve safety in the area.
Even before he was struck by a vehicle just blocks away in 2007, sustaining life-threatening injuries, Gremmels was a big advocate for improved safety on city streets.
Gremmels, whose company sponsors a bike-to-work program, worries about students from nearby Crater High School walking on the narrow highway shoulder as well as his employees. He said he is grateful for the city's vision in involving business owners and citizens in designing the project.
City officials conducted a walking tour, Gremmels said, to highlight what visitors to the area have been saying for years.
"It's pretty nerve-wracking to cross out there on foot and to drive to businesses in this artisan corridor," he said.
"One of three people that come through our door say the traffic has been such that they would pass us by not once, but often twice, before slowing down and finding the site — and the courage — to pull in."
In conjunction with road work, Gremmels said a number of businesses plan upgrades to highlight their businesses and accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.
The creamery plans a series of gazebos and planter areas and tables that will visually connect nearby shops and offer a place for customers to relax or even have lunch after visiting the area.
Areas to be upgraded are gravel or dirt and are too close to traffic for even casual conversation, Gremmels pointed out, much less to feel safe and relax.
With the goal of calming traffic, Parks and Public Works Director Matt Samitore said, city officials have requested a speed limit reduction in time for project completion in late summer.
"We did a speed study prior to construction, and we've requested that Front Street from Crater High to Pine be lowered (from 40 miles per hour) to 30 miles per hour," Samitore said.
"For the city, it makes a lot of sense for a couple reasons," he said. "We want people to slow down in this area because it's turning into a tourist destination and also because it will provide a transition area between the new Twin Creeks rail crossing and Pine Street (construction in 2016-2017) and the west entrance into town.
Cheese shop manager Tom Van Voorhees called the road work "long overdue."
"It's been needed for so long, so this is just fantastic," he said. "Down by the high school will be a 'Welcome to Central Point' sign and it will truly be an entrance into the city and this area. Imagine a 10-foot sidewalk in front of the building. It's going to really transform this corridor."
Raising his voice over a passing semi just an arm's length from where he stood Monday, Gremmels said the construction, while inconvenient, will serve as a daily reminder of long-awaited progress.
"It's an inconvenience today that I think will be celebrated in the short term," Gremmels said. "In addition to being much safer, it's going to really tie the businesses together throughout Front Street and tie all those businesses together with the downtown. Our vision is that it's always been connected to the downtown, and now it really will be."
Samitore said city officials looked forward to the improved safety and aesthetics for Front Street. Ultimately, a second section of Front Street, between Pine Street and Fire District No. 3 offices, will be revamped with similar improvements.
"It will be a good way to transition from more of a highway setting to a more urban or downtown feel," said Samitore.
"The project is about slowing traffic and creating a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly area. I think a lot of people forget the reason it's called Front Street is that it was the front of town. This is one way that it's going to transition back."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance reporter living in Medford. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.