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For the Rogue Valley economy, 1998 looks like it will be a very good year

From expansion of the Rogue Valley Manor in south Medford to construction of the BOC Gases plant in White City, developments herald a vigorous 1998 in the Rogue Valley.

It's not all good news: The closure of a lumber mill and a grocery distribution plant will cut more than 300 jobs, but that's offset by companies growing and moving into the Rogue Valley.

The Manor is building a $20 million six-story residential complex and BOC Gases is building a $25 million gas production plant for the semiconductor industry.

There are more projects in the works.

I think we have a very healthy economy, says April Sevcik, president of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County. Most business people say they had a successful year, but they also say it's because they never worked so hard.

Sevcik, who is president of General Credit Service, says she's also conscious of a high number of bankruptcies, but she says that tends to be a byproduct of prosperity.

Times are good and people are confident they can start over with a clean slate, she says. We expect to add employees next year, but it's not because there's more debt -- it's because the valley is growing.

The jobless rate for Jackson County late last year dropped to 5.2 percent from 7.2 percent a year earlier with the creation of 2,640 new non-farm jobs.

Commercial construction continues throughout the valley, including the new People's Community Bank on Biddle Road in Medford and a new Rogue Federal Credit Union building in south Medford along South Pacific Highway.

Others are also aware of the level of activity in the valley.

We call it energy, says Mike Burrill, president of Eugene F. Burrill Lumber Co. and Burrill Properties. There's lots of energy here right now.

He's in the middle of a transition from forest products to a more diversified economy. In December, he announced that Burrill Lumber Co. will close, eliminating 120 jobs.

Burrill says he's still working with two potential purchasers. If those fall through, the mill will be closed at the end of January and auctioned in April.

Our future's going to be in industrial and commercial land, he says. Last week, CertainTeed announced plans to build a siding factory on 38 acres in White City sold by Burrill Real Estate. That will add at least 80 jobs.

His company also developed Crater Lake Plaza, including Eagle and Costco stores during a wave of retail expansion in the early 1990s.

In the real estate end, we have more deals under way than ever, Burrill says. Every lot in (Crater Lake Plaza) we still own is in the process of being sold. We expect all of it to be closed out by the end of '98.

That same prediction came from Bob Kaczor, president of TRF Real Estate, which is leasing the South Gateway Center.

We anticipate finishing our project in 1998, he says. We're under contract on all but three little lots on our projects. All the major land parcels are under contract. ... I'd like to see us grow into all we've done.

Kaczor also expressed optimism about the future of the long moribund Medford Center, revived with an expanded Sears, a new Circuit City and a new 15-screen Tinseltown complex. An array of storefronts are ready for tenants; details on the leasing activity weren't readily available.

The overall real estate market was down about 8 percent from a year earlier and properties were on the market 47 percent longer than a year before, says Curt Johnson, broker at Oregon Opportunities Real Estate. He says prices still went up about 4 percent.

We were asking if somebody turned the range off altogether, or did it just cool a bit, he says. I don't expect any miracle reversal in the trend, but at $340 million (in sales volume) it's still pretty strong.

The year ahead promises a new beginning for the landmark Mark Antony Hotel in Ashland. The hotel closed twice during 1997 and will be auctioned in federal Bankruptcy Court in February.

Lithia Motors, which just concluded its first year as a publicly held corporation, anticipates another strong year ahead, says Brian Neill, chief financial officer.

We think the economy locally is strong, he says. He doesn't expect economic woes in the Far East to have repercussions on the auto industry.

Japanese cars are made here and priced here, he says.

Nor does Medford Fabrication expect Asian woes to affect its export business, says Bill Thorndike Jr., president.

We did ship a lot to the Far East, but now we're shipping to Turkey and Eastern Europe, he says. Our business moves with the need for power generation. We could use more good welders.

He says he's hoping the arrival of Rogue Community College in downtown Medford will result in training programs more closely tied to the needs of the industry.

Our business is solid for the first quarter and we don't see anything changing, he says. We're optimistic, overall.

Downtown Medford will benefit in 1998 with the completion of a three-level parking garage -- and the end of construction on the project.

United States Cellular is still staffing up its service center in former US West offices on Bartlett Street. That could bring up to 200 jobs to the city.

And it's anticipated that a brew pub and restaurant will open during the year in Medford's old railroad depot.

A building that will house federal inspection facilities has been finished at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport and will be occupied early this year. The offices for customs, immigration and agricultural inspection officials will serve the Jackson County Foreign Trade Zone.

Burrill also is chairman of Ore-Cal Trade Corp., which will manage the FTZ, which permits businesses to store or process products before (or after) clearing U.S. customs.

Runway and taxiway improvements will open the airport to larger aircraft and provide access to the east side of the property, a key to development of the FTZ.

Meanwhile, last year was the busiest in history for the airport, with record numbers of passengers for every month.

Portland-based United Grocers is closing most of its Medford distribution center late this month, eliminating more than 200 jobs. Displaced workers are getting help more quickly, says Bambi Powers, program analyst for the Job Council, serving Jackson and Josephine counties.

She coordinates the Community Response Team (CRT), which deals with large-scale hiring and layoff events. It includes the Job Council, state Employment Department, Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.

The CRT has a much stronger tie to economic development, she says. We're in the loop -- and it's wonderful.

She says 85 percent of the 630 displaced workers in the past year were employed as soon as they finished training and nearly all of them were still working three months later at an average $9.70 an hour.

`There's never a good time to be laid off, she says. But we're finally seeing job training connections forming very quickly.