From Bear Creek to Alba Park, Main Street Medford unfolds like a stream, with traffic bending out of sight after passing the old Carnegie Library.

From Bear Creek to Alba Park, Main Street Medford unfolds like a stream, with traffic bending out of sight after passing the old Carnegie Library.

Once the primary east-to-west artery through Jackson County's largest population center, its flow has slowed as the city's commercial activities have dispersed to the north and south.

Main Street was just that for much of the city's first century, with everything from banking and department stores to bakery and vehicle sales occurring on the thoroughfare connecting the residential eastside heights to farmland outside Jacksonville.

It has cycled through the Great Depression and several recessions, weathering downturns and returning with flourishes. Demographics changed with the decades, often redefining what Main Street Medford was about. When the timber industry was king, its booms and busts were reflected in retail activity.

Recent global financial trends, drying up credit and discretionary spending, have played a role in emptying store fronts that thrived five years ago. An informal survey this past week of Main Street showed roughly one in five commercial locations — business and living spaces — in the downtown stretch were vacant, underutilized or in transition.

But beyond the noticeable decline of retail shopping activity, commercial activity still thrives, sometimes unseen. Small operations, often one-person offices handling regional sales or customer service occupy considerable space — even the Southern Oregon office for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is located in a second-floor suite.

Yet, many of the 70,000 people calling Medford home rarely spend much time on Main Street, and a sizable number of the 200,000 inhabitants of the county need directions to find what once was the economic center of Southern Oregon.

Alexander Coin & Stamp Shop has been at 425 E. Main St., since August 1966. Although the past two years have been his best-ever operating the company, Jerry Merfeld frequently finds himself explaining how to find the shop.

"What I like about being here (two doors up from Bear Creek) is that it's pretty easy to tell people where you are," Merfeld said. "But I get people who say they are not familiar with Main Street. There is a reason it's called Main Street."

The lack of familiarity partially can be explained by the fact it's more than a mile from either of Medford's freeway exits. But there are plenty of other influences that have shaped Main Street's fortunes on both sides of the railroad tracks that divide the city east from west.

Charles Lang has viewed the street's development through multiple prisms as a business person, operating Nepenthe Massage above Norris Shoes on East Main, and as a member of the Medford Historical Commission.

"I see two clear-cut scenarios involving age demographics," Lang said. "During the day, you see an earlier generation that tends to value downtown and has been shopping there for decades. That's why places like Lawrence's (Jewelers) still thrive."

But when the sun goes down, Main Street takes on a different demeanor.

"There's an amazing metamorphosis and the place becomes young," Lang said. "4 Daughters, Howie's, Shenanigans and a few other places scattered around draw people. Downtown becomes a young people's place to be after dark. I've witnessed a thriving throng of people at a volume I would never see at mid-day. For some reason, the dynamics of restaurants and nightclubs create an amazing change."

Change has been a singular constant as generations die off and commercial realities morph.

Department stores have given way to office space and time took its toll on other buildings, clearing the way for PremierWest Bank on the southeast corner of Main and Bartlett streets and Vogel Plaza a block to the west. The last of the auto dealerships to leave Main Street was Crater Lake Ford, which pulled up stakes in 1985 and moved to more spacious quarters on Biddle Road. Subsequently, Scan Design furniture remodeled the car dealer's old showroom at Fir and West Main. Historic Flurher Bakery, on the northwest corner of West Main and Holly streets, was sold to Williams Bakery in 1962 and converted into office space in the 1970s.

More recently, Hubbard Brothers Hardware, had a run of 108 years on the northwest corner of West Main and Riverside Avenue, before it was shuttered in 2006. Its owners hoped to get the Medford Food Co-op to occupy part of the building, but that notion never materialized.

Five blocks down the street, Joseph Winans Furniture launched its final sale earlier this month after Joe and Frances Pedrojetti announced they were closing the business which moved to Main Street in 1984. The 25,865-square-foot, three-story building is on sale for $1.95 million. The Pedrojettis placed two former furniture showroom buildings on the south side of Main Street up for sale in 2007.

"You drive around the block and it's not very encouraging," said Laz Ayala, who owns several downtown properties, including the Palm-Niedermeyer Building on the northeast corner of West Main and Grape streets. "It just feels empty."

Aside from Ayala's building, which is substantially occupied by a half-dozen tenants, the adjacent 4 Daughters pub and Western Oregon Window Fashions across the street, Main between Fir and Grape, also will look rather empty once Winans closes down some time this spring.

Just to the east is the Bella Vita parking garage surrounded by a concrete landscape that serves as an ugly reminder of the failed urban renewal project that was intended to wrap a mix of commercial and residential space around the parking structure.

Opinions vary on what to do about Main Street's open wound.

Ayala said finishing Bella Vita — primarily with condominiums or apartments — would promote commercial investment in the area.

"We have enough amenities here to support (residential) development there," Ayala said. "What we're looking for is population that will provide the critical mass for retail to come in. Until that happens, it won't come."

Linda Jones, the store manager at Scan Design since 1992, said completion of Bella Vita would change things for the better primarily because it would give passing traffic a reason to stop.

"The way Main Street is set up, the traffic flow is not retail friendly," Jones said. "We've never got a lot of traffic here."

A few years ago, Scan Design drew up plans to put a doorway allowing customer access from Evergreen Way, which parallels the railroad tracks. The plans were put on hold when Bella Vita stalled.

"It's affected the entire community," Jones said. "People think the garage is in a construction zone and don't park there. It looks abandoned and we get negative questions about it all the time. It would be nice if they took down the temporary fencing, at least made it look nicer and cleaned up the outside."

Portland-based consultant Mary Bosch of Marketek took a walking tour of downtown Medford last month and is putting together a plan to help beef-up economic activity in the city's core.

"By the time you get to Front Street, if you're walking, the street is a dead zone," she said. "You're not going to keep walking, railroad or no railroad."

Businesses need to invest in inviting storefronts, windows and "great signage," Bosch said. "It's all the basic stuff people have heard before, but I can't tell you how connected that is with economic development on Main Street. When there is no signage, dark windows and store fronts that are non-communicative, you're not conveying anything unique and compelling."

Whether appearing in the former Hubbard Brothers Hardware store, the Bella Vita or one of the Winans buildings, the need is for a magnetic retailer, said former city councilman and Main Street shop owner Fred Phelps.

"If we want retail to come back on Main Street, we need some kind of anchor," said Phelps, who still resides on Main Street. "If I had the authority, I would pay somebody, give free rent, or whatever it takes to get traffic down there. What I would love to see there is something like a Trader Joe's. There are other companies like Henry's — an upscale grocery store. If somebody did something like that, it would make all the difference."

While that might be a long-shot hope, Bosch said it has happened elsewhere.

"I don't think it's impossible," Bosch said. "Typically, it's done by a redevelopment agency, assembling a site and providing the carrot to get a large anchor. A flagship retailer, an entertainment center or something of that nature can be a catalyst for additional development."

When Robert and Suezann Rushing opened Facets Jewelry five years ago in May, vacant storefronts were virtually non-existent. Now, how long it will take to replicate that era is anybody's guess.

"I don't know of any specific formula," Robert Rushing said. "I don't think you can just develop a master plan and say if all these businesses come we'd have a vital downtown. It reminds me of blight you see in some residential areas. It takes a courageous person to take a big risk and fix up a house. Then maybe other people say 'I can do it, too.' It seems no one is willing to take the first step and I'm not sure what that is. But if it happens, it will be a spontaneous thing and will happen on its own."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.