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Major projects will boost region's economy

A collection of major projects on the launch pad figures to recast the Southern Oregon landscape and energize the economy for years to come.

The projects — the Commons and Northgate Centre in Medford, John Day Ranch Resort in Sams Valley; and Paradise Ranch in Merlin were the focal point of the fifth annual Southern Oregon Business Conference Thursday at the Red Lion Hotel in Medford.

"I added them up and we're talking about nearly half a billion dollars in investment," said Ron Fox, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc.

Panelists Bill Hoke, Medford's deputy city manager; Eric Iverson of Lithia Motors (which is building its new mid-rise headquarters at the Commons project); Daniel Charbonneau and Bill Leep of Paradise Ranch; and John Elmore of John Day Ranch discussed the progress of projects that will revitalize downtown Medford, change its shopping habits and attract both short- and long-term visitors.

Economist Joe Cortright of Portland consulting firm Impresa Inc., spoke about trends that demonstrate vitality among America's Top 50 metropolitan markets and paralleled elements that will affect Southern Oregon in years to come.

He said a local economy can gauge its strength by its ability to draw talent, be innovative, connect people and highlight its distinctions.

The changing elements of the Oregon economy will continue along their paths. Wood products and technology both provided about 53,000 jobs in the state during the mid-1990s. Since then, technology has continued to grow with more than 75,000 people drawing paychecks in that sector, while about 45,000 remain in wood products.

Among the findings in his report, Cortright said the variance in any region's payscale is growing wider, based on education.

"The staircase (earnings chart) has grown even steeper in recent years," he said.

The downtown Commons, where Lithia Motors will build its new headquarters, will draw a different type of person to Medford, essential to the area's growth, he said.

"The kind of people Lithia attracts are the well-educated 25- to 34-year-olds," Cortright said. "Those are the people who are interested in vibrant urban centers, the associated hubs of activity. There are a lot of places with nice suburbs — you find those everywhere, but vibrant urban centers set a place apart. If you're losing the recent college graduate, that should be a big flashing light telling you there's something wrong with the local economy. You need that young and restless group."

Immigration remains helpful, he said, noting a third of the patents issued by the U.S. government are to immigrants.

"It speaks to how good we are at attracting and retaining talent," Cortright said.

With the population growing older, jobs that are hard to fill today will be that much harder to fill in years to come.

"Everything associated with retirement in the U.S. doubles or triples in the next few years," he said. "A lot of those people might be moving here. They are leaving jobs, leaving a hole that companies have to fill. That's bringing a fundamental change in the labor market."

Cortright said the in-migration that has been feeding Medford's economy in recent years is slowing. Destination resorts, however, will make the Rogue Valley more attractive to retiring baby boomers.

"The destination resorts will be catering to people with high-end incomes and are considerably more wealthy than most people in Jackson and Josephine counties."

While national economic trends will bear on Southern Oregon, Cortright pointed out the previous economic dip earlier this decade barely fazed the valley. Slowing in-migration has contributed to the soft housing market, he said.

"The housing bubble was self-perpetuating when prices were going up, because people thought they'd miss out if they didn't buy now," Cortright said. "Some of the purchases that should have been made in 2007 and 2008 were made in 2005 and 2006. Psychologically it feeds on itself when it's going up and does the same thing when it's going down."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.