Conventional thinking

Medford could benefit from a convention center, but only with private investment

It's clear the Rogue Valley would benefit from a convention center able to accommodate large groups wanting to meet under one roof. It's also clear that, if the Medford area is to have one, it will have to be accomplished primarily with private money.

The obvious public entity that could have developed a convention center is the Medford Urban Renewal Agency. But MURA chose to make its mark — and spend its tax-increment financing — on other projects. As former MURA director Don Burt explained in a story in Sunday's paper, the idea was tossed around, but never gained enough traction to become part of MURA's plans.

So, instead of a big convention center with multiple meeting rooms and a hotel, MURA invested in the Craterian performing arts center; The Commons; One West Main, formerly known as Bella Vita; and multiple streetscape and facade upgrades throughout the city's core.

The city of Salem's urban renewal agency chose to build a convention center, at a cost of $32 million. The result has proved to be a major draw, hosting 88,000 attendees for various events in 2012.

Compare that price tag with the $14 million MURA spent on The Commons — the agency's largest single project — and it's clear a convention center would have eaten up a large chunk of MURA's available money.

Now, with MURA winding down its 25-year life span and preparing to go out of existence, Medford is not in a position to commit that kind of money to a public project.

There is no question this area could be competitive in landing conventions for large groups. The Chamber's visitor and convention arm reports turning down one or two requests a month because the area has no facility large enough.

Medford and the Rogue Valley have a lot to offer in terms of climate, food and wine, theater, concerts and outdoor recreation.

Location is a major issue, as Sunday's story explained. Downtown space is at a premium, and streamside development restrictions rule out a major expansion of the Red Lion complex on Riverside Avenue.

Assuming a location could be found that would satisfy everyone, cost is still the biggest obstacle. If a private hotel company showed enough interest, local governments might get behind a convention center. Until then, as the Chamber's Anne Jenkins put it, Medford can get along fine without one.

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