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Rest area making progress at last

An Interstate 5 rest area near Ashland originally set to cost $3.5 million and be completed in 2009 remains unfinished and far over the original budget.

The Welcome Center is now expected to open next year after years of delay as bids for the final constructing phase of a welcome center are due in March, Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman said.

The now-$12 million project, called the Siskiyou Welcome Center and Rest Area, sits on an 18-acre lot on the east side of I-5, just south of Crowson Road in Ashland.

The first phase, constructed by Wildish Standard Paving of Eugene has just been completed this winter, at a cost of $6.29 million, ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said. The phase included drainage, grading and paving of ramps, roadways and parking areas.

“The second phase will include the buildings — welcome center and restrooms,” Leaming said. “It’s being advertised for bids right now with the expectation for construction to start in spring.”

The second phase will also construct a plaza, landscaping and picnic areas. The facility will feature two “Cascadian” style buildings — a 3,700-square-foot Welcome Center and a 1,750-square-foot restroom building, according to architectural plans. The building will also include an office for the Oregon State Police, Leaming said.

The bids are due March 15, according to ODOT's invitation to bid. ODOT expects the project to stay within its new budget of $12 million, Leaming said.

“We are in good shape with the budget,” he said.

Leaming said ODOT expects to turn the welcome center over to Travel Oregon — the state's tourism arm — in February 2019 to furnish and run the operation. Travel Oregon paid for the welcome center and borrowed $1.5 million from the city of Medford for part of its contribution. Gas taxes are being used to pay back the loan.

Commercial truckers will not be allowed to stop at the new facility but will have restrooms available at the Ashland Port of Entry between exits 14 and 19.

A part of the investment to enhance the I-5 entryway into Oregon from California, Siskiyou Welcome Center and Rest Area will fill the void of a permanent welcome center after more than two decades when a Siskiyou Summit center closed in 1996 out of safety concerns. The welcome center then reportedly received more than 78,000 visitors annually.

A temporary welcome center was opened in an office attached to the Econo Lodge at 60 Lowe Road, off Valley View Road, in 2004. The center received only about 12,000 visitors annually because of its location, according to ODOT.

ODOT has said the welcome area "will be a refuge for travelers coming into Oregon over the Siskiyou Summit" and "a gateway for tourists entering the Rogue Valley" that will benefit regional and local economy.

According to the Oregon Association of Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2015, every dollar spent operating the welcome center will generate $41 in new visitor spending. ODOT also hopes the new center will attract some of the annual 125,000 visitors who use Ashland Chamber's Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The $3.5 million plan was originally approved in 2001 when state Sen. Lenn Hannon, other local legislators and ODOT identified the money it needed for a rest area, following the closure of the Siskiyou Summit site. The plan was later expanded to include the tourism Welcome Center and costs additionally grew over the ensuring 17 years due to inflation, new requirements and delays associated with appeals.

Because rest areas were not a permitted use on farm land under current state law, ODOT needed permission from county and state land-use authorities to proceed.

When first proposed, the project drew much attention — and opposition — from local residents, some of whom spent five years fighting ODOT in court. The legal battle resulted in a delay in construction until November 2015, according to a timeline published by ODOT. In 2017, the project lost its architectural firm for its second stage construction when the business closed down, project manager Tim Fletcher told the Tidings in September. He said the winter conditions also contributed to the slow construction process.

Now, ODOT has set a new opening date in early 2019 for the welcome center.

"We’re anxious to get the contract to move forward,” Leaming said.

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.