The Medford City Council took a long-overdue step last week toward improving one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. It's important that the council not lose focus and follow through on what is so far an unofficial commitment.
Acting as the board of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, the council voted unanimously to extend MURA beyond its sunset date of 2019. That will generate an estimated $22 million in tax revenue that otherwise would go to other taxing districts.
Councilors also voted informally to spend most of that money on the Liberty Park neighborhood, also known as Beatty-Manzanita for two of its principal streets. The neighborhood lies between Central and Riverside avenues just north of downtown.
Liberty Park has been waiting in vain for some tangible benefit from the urban renewal district that was created in 1988. The neighborhood was included in the original proposal for the renewal district because one purpose of urban renewal is to combat blight, and Liberty Park provided that.
Three decades later, Liberty Park is still blighted, although it did receive a tiny park built with MURA funds.
In all, MURA spent more than $67 million on a variety of projects, including The Commons, sidewalks and street lighting, renovation of Hawthorne Park and downtown building facade improvements. More than half the money went to construct parking facilities.
Supporters of a new public swimming pool for Hawthorne Park pressed the council to spend some of the $22 million on a pool. The city needs at least one new pool and preferably two — Jackson Pool on the west side needs replacing as well — but the city should look elsewhere for that funding.
Liberty Park needs help, and the urban renewal extension is the most appropriate way to deliver. What's more, this is an opportunity for the city to get directly involved in creating new affordable housing in a neighborhood that can benefit directly from it.
In addition, the city could support a proposed project by Kids Unlimited in conjunction with Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based organization that works to revitalize low-income neighborhoods.
Beyond the extension of MURA, the city should be more aggressive in pursuing grants to support housing and other projects. A recent request for applications to a grant program that helps pay for seismic retrofits on historic buildings revealed that city officials weren't aware the grants were available until shortly before the application deadline.
When it comes time to formally endorse the MURA extension and begin deciding how to spend the money, council members need to stay focused on Liberty Park and not let competing requests whittle away at the available funding.