Improving a downtown low-income neighborhood known as Liberty Park appears to be a priority for city councilors and local residents as they discussed a number of projects that could extend the life of the 30-year-old Medford Urban Renewal Agency.

Former Councilor John Statler said Thursday evening at a MURA meeting that the city developed a plan in 2002 to improve his neighborhood just north of the downtown based on comments from local residents.

"Little of substance has been accomplished," he said.

The MURA board, made up of city councilors, held the first of three public hearings to gather information from the public about whether the city should continue the revitalization efforts or just let the renewal district sunset in 2019.

A few of the approximately 25 audience members suggested everything from seismically retrofitting old buildings to enhancing the downtown to take better advantage of Bear Creek, similar to what Bend has done.

No one spoke in opposition to continuing MURA, which has been criticized over the years by some local residents.

MURA was created in 1988 with the primary goal of revitalizing downtown and its surrounding area, including the shopping area near the south Medford interchange.

Almost $67 million has been spent on projects that include The Commons/Pear Blossom Park, the One West Main office complex, the South Gateway redevelopment, Vogel Plaza, Bear Creek Dam removal, Craterian Theater redevelopment, several street projects and the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center. It also developed the Sixth Street and Evergreen Street parking garages and several other parking lots, and funded renovations to Hawthorne Park.

Councilors and members of the public have criticized the lack of improvements to the Liberty Park neighborhood, which received only a small park space out of the MURA effort. The neighborhood, with a median annual income of $14,674, is generally bounded by McAndrews Road to the north, Jackson Street to the south and Interstate 5 and Central avenues to the east and west.

Urban renewal projects are funded by increased property taxes that occur within the urban renewal district, partially created by the associated improvements. That redirection of tax funds is eliminated with the sunsetting of the district, and the MURA board has already voted to cease collecting the tax funds. However, the board is considering extending the life of the district to take on additional projects that would be funded using all or a portion of MURA’s remaining bonding capacity of $22 million.

Statler, who specifically asked for sidewalks to make his neighborhood safer, urged the MURA board to seek resident input over commercial developers or absentee landlords.

Councilor Dick Gordon said he agreed that the Liberty Park neighborhood had been shortchanged by MURA and said he would support revitalization efforts.

"We need to do something," he said.

John Valdez said the neighborhood has run-down businesses, and he would like to see them spruced up.

"Some of the property owners let their vegetation get out of control," he said.

Councilors told Valdez to talk about overgrown yards with code enforcement officials.

Local architect David Wilkerson said he would like to see more housing developments near the downtown that would benefit downtown merchants.

"There's ample opportunity to do that with the vacant lots and parking lots," he said.

He said the downtown has many of the features needed to make it a livelier place, but he thought more could be done to tie everything together, including stimulating development that takes advantage of Bear Creek.

MURA board member Clay Bearnson asked Wilkerson if it would help for MURA to have a low-interest loan program to encourage developers to retrofit older buildings.

"It would absolutely help," Wilkerson said.

Mayor Gary Wheeler, a MURA board member, said he would like to take a look at including the area along Central and Riverside from Barnett to 10th Street.

"There's a lot of developable land in that area," he said. "I'd be in favor of looking at other areas, if we can."

MURA board President Kevin Stine said city officials would be meeting with Jackson County and other local districts to determine whether they supported extending the life of urban renewal.

By the end of the year, he said he hopes to have a list of projects 

The next two meetings are both at 6 p.m. on June 15 and July 20 in the Council Chambers on the third floor of City Hall, 411 W. Eighth St.

For more information on MURA and its projects, see the city of Medford website at www.ci.medford.or.us. Medford Urban Renewal is listed under City Departments.

Residents unable to attend one of the three meetings can still comment by emailing project ideas and comments to comments@cityofmedford.org. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. July 21.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.