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Q&A: Jerry Ehlers, Heart of Medford president

Personal File, 55, has been the Heart of Medford Association president for the past 10 years and a member of the organization since 1990. He has been state chairman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past two years and was a founding member of the Jackson County chapter. He's been a member of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency's budget committee since 1997 and a member of its marketing committee since 1996.Ehlers has been in residential and commercial real estate sales for John L. Scott Real Estate for nearly six years. Prior to that he was manager for Rogue Valley Transportation District for 12 years. Before that he started the Klamath Falls transit system, which he ran for five years.

Q: What are the primary issues for Heart of Medford Association members?

A: One of our goals is to increase customer traffic through having more businesses, more storefronts open and having more activities. Of course for the restaurant owners, it's to get more nightlife down there. Business owners say customers would like to see more variety, maybe an upper-end restaurant like a dinner house.

Parking sometimes becomes an issue, although most people know there usually is enough parking. There are members of the general public still unaware of a parking structure (in downtown Medford). It's so ironic that after five years or more, people will be at a store and say I have to move my car.

Rents are good downtown, and costs are very reasonable. It really is advantageous for an owner to bring a business into downtown compared to a lot of other locations.

Q: How has the geographical scope of downtown changed?

I think it's the same general area, perimeter-wise. Five-plus years ago, I remember people didn't visit downtown because nothing was there. My big goal back in 1990 and 1991 was getting storefronts and streets cleaned up ' that was my big dream. I feel we've fulfilled that tremendously by getting public acceptance of downtown. They've said This is really neat; I haven't been down here before. I've lived here for 30 years, but never came downtown. They've done nothing but go to the mall for shopping. They see the different stores and activities while down there ' Farmers Market and car shows and storefronts.

Q: What do owners say about the pace of business?

They say things are picking up. I don't have numbers; they don't make me privy to those. Most people I've talked to have commented that business and foot traffic have increased. Overall, the general population has given us good feedback. In my business (real estate sales) I meet people that have left the area and have come back. Whenever people are looking at property, I always make a point of taking them downtown. Some of them have never been here before, but the ones who have say This looks so different from the way it did in 1985 or 1990.

Property owners have incentives to restore buildings to their original look. There's new paint on buildings and new glass. Sidewalks have been upgraded. Vogel Plaza and the Ginger Rogers Theater have made it a very warm, inviting downtown.

To me, downtown is like the heart: If it's not beating properly, the rest of you dies. It's got to be viable and alive in order to make the rest of the community whole.

Q: What will be the impact of the new library and Rogue Community College on the downtown core?

There's going to be so much more activity downtown, and that's what's needed to generate more nightlife, restaurants and stores. A library runs later at night and will draw a lot of people.

Q: What's your take on Winetrout?

It's critical we do something about it; it's an eyesore. It looks like a gaping hole in the middle of downtown. Somewhere along the line, some developer will pick it up and start something with it. We need to do something kind of like (the since-scuttled six-story building) they had already planned on. We do need downtown living quarters; there is a demand for it, and that again will increase nightlife.

We're always hurting for more office space, and that office space will need to be really modern. I know some of the downtown buildings are having their challenges in terms of (earthquake) retrofit and wiring.

Q: What's your personal wish list for downtown?

We're almost there. When I got involved in this organization, I looked at the downtown and knew it really needed some help. We've gone from peeling paint, cracked and broken windows, weeds in cracked streets and sidewalks to something much better. I remember seeing people sleeping in the alcoves of the buildings where they were booting them out in the morning. There were a lot of vacancies. But we got everybody working as a group and really worked together. There were people hanging on by a thread to keep businesses there; it was really tough on them, Medford Urban Renewal Agency has been a major, major help. We have gotten almost everything I've been shooting for.

We still need more downtown living ' I would think 100 to 150 apartments or condos would really help bring in 350 to 400 people. We didn't know about the library when we began. That's another thing that's going to be a big plus.

I would like to see more activities come into town. We're starting to build with the (Mayor's Cup) bike race, and that could expand more.

When you look at downtown, it's not just a business area but a community. They're independent business owners who have a mind of their own. They want the opportunity to run a business their own way and work their own hours. My goal has been to take those same people and get them to work together and cooperate and help each other and thrive.

I've seen it in other communities ' one was right outside Seattle ' where they put on an evening event. The businesses open their doors, and it's kind of like an open house. They're not necessarily open for business, but open for people to see what's there. Streets were blocked off, and they would have hors d'oeuvres, hot chocolate and some wine. That built some strong bonds and relationships with customers they may never have seen before.

Jerry Ehlers