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U.S. Cellular looking for new site with room to grow

United States Cellular's temporary regional communications center in downtown Medford has 150 employees and no room to grow.

The company occupied the two former US West office buildings at Fifth and Bartlett streets in October and started scouting for a permanent site for up to 500 workers.

My first choice is to keep everything downtown because we like the services, said Jim Kelley, director of corporate properties. That has to be tempered by the costs and benefits of other sites outside the city.

The company also is considering several Medford sites outside of the city center, and property in other communities as far away as Klamath Falls.

The company is planning to build a 60,000-square-foot center and will require 300 to 400 parking spaces. Some of the departments will operate on two or three shifts, he explained. The city's transit system, restaurants and shops make it a choice location for the center, he explained.

The temporary facility fills 30,000 square feet of space studded with columns that interfere with flexibility and communication, Kelley explains. The workers serve the company's customers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

A six-member task force is working with the company to seek a site. Members are Jim Key and Linda Casey of the Medford City Council, Lindsay Berryman and Bill Moore of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency and Sal Esquivel and Steve Swearingen, representing

Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. (SO-REDI). Moore and Esquivel also serve on the City Council.

Five potential downtown sites have been identified, said Don Burt, director of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency. These parallel potential parking structure locations.

The front-runner is the corner of Eighth and Central, where the next parking structure was planned.

It's possible we can put (U.S. Cellular) on top of the parking structure, Burt said. That would create a five-story project with parking and office quarters sharing the fourth floor.

The parking structure could serve both U.S. Cellular and neighboring Rogue Community College, which has already pushed that project to the top of the list.

The question is, how much parking do we need? Burt said. This could kill two birds with one stone. But any time you talk about building that high, you really have to sit down and look at it.

Burt said retaining U.S. Cellular's offices downtown is consistent with the agency's vision plan.

Bruce Laird, regional representative for the Oregon Economic Development Department, emphasized the importance of the location.

Keeping those guys downtown is a key to the creation of a vital and vibrant downtown, Laird said.

Symantec Corp.'s move to downtown Eugene, with about 500 jobs in the early 1990s, marked the beginning of a turnaround for the downtown mall, he added.

Eugene has been very aggressive about bringing business back downtown, said Rob Pochert of SO-REDI.

Councilman Esquivel says he's hoping the city can keep the company downtown.

It would help immensely, he said. This is the kind of business you want to entice downtown. If the opportunity's there, we need to follow through.

A second possible location for the office is on land adjoining Bear Creek, just north of Ninth and Riverside. Burt said that parcel may be too narrow and the location is complicated by proximity to the creek.

Additional sites are:

At Fir and Main streets, behind the Furniture Liquidators store (formerly People's Furniture).

On the site of temporary offices at Fifth and Bartlett streets.

Along the railroad right-of-way near Fourth Street.

That's also a narrow lot and there are some historic buildings in the area that have to be protected, Burt said.

Pochert said the vacant Ernst building in Medford's South Gateway center was one of the first proposals when U.S. Cellular contacted the city. That 56,000-square-foot building has adjacent parking and shops.

As I recall, their architects were looking at the building and the possibility of adding a mezzanine, he said.

The company had considered a site near Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, Councilman Key said, but that location raised potential conflicts with the airport's radar.

I'm trying to give Medford every benefit, Kelley said. We believe we owe allegiance to the city for all of their work and interest they have shown so far. We are very happy in Medford.

He said the company has had no trouble recruiting a workforce.

These are conscientious people, computer-literate as we had expected, he said. There has always been a good response to our advertising.

Sandy Odor, director of the company's Medford call center, says she's been told the company is paying about $1 to $2 an hour more than other employers for comparable work.

Kelley says the city also has been cooperative with the company, working as a liaison with neighboring business to resolve parking needs.

Some of our people are parking four blocks or more away, but that's just until the city's parking garage is open, he said.

Burt said the city's first parking structure is due to be completed on schedule by June 24.

Customer service representative Wendy Mondry works at a computer inside the temporary United States Cellular regional communications center in downtown Medford. - Photo by Steve Johnson