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Ashland mill site plan draws mixed reviews

ASHLAND — Members of the business community have mixed views about whether the Croman Mill Site Redevelopment Plan would spur job creation or over-regulate and stall business growth on Ashland's largest chunk of undeveloped land.

The Ashland City Council took public comments on the plan this week. Counci members, who still had questions about the plan that would guide development on the 70-acre former mill site east of Tolman Creek Road, will continue discussing the issue on May 4.

Mike Montero, speaking on behalf of the owners of the mill site, said the redevelopment plan isn't perfect, but the owners could support it. He said Plexis Healthcare Systems, an Ashland-based health care software company, is still looking forward to expanding onto the Croman site.

Plexis has struggled to find adequate space in Ashland.

Graham Lewis, who has long been active in the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said representatives from the chamber, Plexis, the city of Ashland and the state government have met many times as the redevelopment plan has been crafted.

"For Ashland to have a sustainable economy, we must have space," Graham said.

He added, "A vote for this plan is a vote for economic sustainability." Ashland Planning Commission Chairwoman Pam Marsh said the plan aims high with strong design and environmental standards.

"This is a neighborhood that could be home to a significant number of family-wage jobs," said Marsh, who voted with a Planning Commission majority to recommend that the City Council approve the plan.

Planning Commissioners Melanie Mindlin and Michael Dawkins submitted a minority report to councilors outlining their concerns with the plan.

Mindlin said complex design standards will make it hard for businesses without much capital to be able to afford to build on the Croman land.

Builder and former Planning Commissioner John Fields said the city got off on the wrong foot from the beginning when it hired outside consultants to develop early concepts for the plan. The consultants presented an idea for a high-end, Portland-style office park that would be suitable for big companies such as Microsoft, Fields said.

He said many of the businesses that have proven successful in Ashland have been homegrown.

Fields said he estimated the infrastructure costs to build a proposed main road through the Croman land would be $10 million — which would be more than the first businesses that build there could handle.

Mark DiRienzo, who has a business park in the area on Mistletoe Road, said infrastructure costs would be too high for businesses and the city, even if they shared costs.

The Croman plan also sets lot size minimums that would be too large for small, incubator businesses, he said.

DiRienzo asked the City Council to send the plan out to business community members and have them prepare a thorough economic analysis of the plan.

As it stands, the plan is complicated, confusing and costly, and will slow business growth on the land, he said.

Tom Bradley, a commercial real estate broker and developer who also operates a light industry business incubator in Medford, said the plan could over-regulate development and needs to be more flexible.

"The stakes are pretty high. It's an amazing piece of land," he said.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at vlaldous@yahoo.com.