CENTRAL POINT — City officials hope to secure $1.5 million in grants to enhance areas along Highway 99.

CENTRAL POINT — City officials hope to secure $1.5 million in grants to enhance areas along Highway 99.

Pine Street has seen a number of improvements in recent years, including wider sidewalks and "bulb outs" for pedestrian safety, along with a rebuilt intersection with Highway 99. The city also has developed a planning process to determine changes citizens would most like to see around town.

Now city leaders have requested $1.5 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation to make Highway 99 feel like a boulevard instead of a busy state highway.

They hope to draw visitors to artisan businesses such as Rogue Creamery, Red Oak Glass and Lillie Belle Chocolates that recently started an "Exit 33" marketing campaign for the Highway 99 corridor.

Tom Humphrey, Central Point's community development director, said the goal is to visually and functionally connect Highway 99 and downtown as a central business district, capitalizing on businesses that give the city its identity, such as Rogue Creamery and Grange Co-Op along Highway 99 and Pine Street's Horse Blanket and Rostel's restaurant.

For Highway 99 and Pine Street, a downtown beautification committee is working on aesthetic improvements, including benches, floral plantings and murals, to make the business district more visually appealing.

Humphrey said the momentum is encouraging after a decade of slow progress.

"It's not just a matter of beautifying the downtown or creating art that attracts attention, but getting people to come in who know about small business development and creating a destination that will draw people into the city," Humphrey said.

"We're trying to set the stage so that the businesses that decide they want to participate (will) be encouraged to do that," he said.

"We've got a downtown that still has some of its historic buildings"¦I think we've got some energy going that could make some real differences."

John Hastings, longtime owner of Hastings Furniture on Highway 99, said he hoped recent efforts would continue and that more business owners would "make some effort."

"I've been here 15 years and when I first started, Highway 99 looked the same as it does now, except my building," he said.

Hastings said business owners he'd spoken to felt that Central Point's development fees and slow progress had deterred new businesses from coming to the city.

Rostel's owner Joni Mears, who purchased the business in recent months and reopened March 17, said the city's small-town atmosphere was encouraging, and she hoped to see improvements continue.

"I can get out my front door and go to the bank, the print shop and get my nails done without even getting in my car," she said. "It's a nice town and I feel like a lot of people are trying real hard. I think the quicker more people get involved the better."

Humphrey said the city has acquired property for much-needed parking, established a program offering low interest loans for façade improvements and may eventually consider an urban renewal district.

As changes are visible on both ends of town, Humphrey said he hoped to see more business owners "get on board."

"In the old days if you had a business in the downtown, you were out there sweeping the sidewalk, washing windows"¦ it was your little piece of earth," he said.

"I think projects like the ones we've got going will get people engaged and hopefully make them care a little bit more about their city," he said. "There's a lot of potential here."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.