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Location, location, location

The Southern Oregon Music Festival draws more than 1,000 fans to five Medford locations each October.

The venues are varied, generally crowded, and sometimes it's impossible for attendees to see all the bands, even with excellent shuttle service.

The thought of a one-stop central location with larger multiple performance areas for the festival is music to SOMF board president Jim DeMont's ears.

"If we could be self-contained in one large venue with everything we needed, where all we had to do is bring in musicians, that would be ideal," DeMont said.

After receiving $100,000 from the Oregon Legislature to pursue a feasibility study for a conference/convention center, the city of Medford is poised to evaluate the needs and demands. If the consulting firm determines there is a need to build something, where would it go? Who would pay for it and how?

There is no right or wrong answer, for now, just opinions of where such a facility would go. A handful of plausible sites have been mentioned for a conference center, based on proximity to the airport, downtown, hotel rooms and amenities such as golf courses.

One possible site would be adjacent to The Commons on former Lithia Motors property now owned by a McLean, Virginia, real estate investment trust.

"I would love to see it downtown as a capstone to the redevelopment," said Sid DeBoer, Lithia Motors' executive chairman. "It would bring life to Medford and finish what we started. If you build a convention center downtown, you could get a major hotel company to build 400 or 500 rooms, with the capacity to shuttle people from the airport."

DeBoer is quick to point out the property is no longer owned by Lithia, and there would be no direct financial benefit to his firm if it were acquired for a such a project.

"All that land could be bought cheaply," he said.

One way to help pay for the project would be incorporating office space for lease.

"There is a demand for first-class office space," DeBoer said. "So much of the space available is so-so, old and tired, but it's occupied. There are some people who would be interested if there was a new office complex built in conjunction with a hotel and convention center."

Like others, DeBoer thinks a new urban renewal district could aid in financing.

"It's going to take money and commitment," he said. "I think there is a chance for public/private collaboration, but it's not going to happen someplace out of downtown."

Airports tend to be magnets for conference center development, and more than one development group over the years has considered the possibility here.

"We've got pretty good air service from a number of airports, so the convenience would make the airport an attractive place," said Tom Becker, former CEO of Pacific Retirement Services.

With the airport experiencing a string of record passenger years, Becker expects to see nearby hotel growth.

"It would be logical for a conference center to go there. It's nice to come in, have a meeting, stay there and then leave. Eventually it would lead to more businesses and hotels in the area."

The X-factor in that entire neighborhood is Costco's plan to relocate a few blocks away from the airport, something that promises to spur additional commercial development west of the airport.

"Costco is going to be a magnet for other businesses wanting to be on that stretch out there," Becker said.

Other plausible sites exist near the south freeway interchange, with golf courses and the sports park close by. Commercial development continues month by month, including two Hilton hotels (the second is under construction), two Marriott properties, a Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn.

"Assuming South Stage Road gets connected through to the east side of Bear Creek, the logical place would be adjacent to Centennial Golf Course between Phoenix and Medford," said Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication and a member of multiple community and state boards.

"Centennial provides the connection to recreation and the visibility is fantastic. From there, it opens travel between Medford and Ashland and Medford and Jacksonville."

He suggests "Urban Renewal 2.0" as a way to finance a project covering 10 to 20 acres.

"You need to get over that magic 500-seat capacity with or adjacent to something to support its catering requirements and connections to other development in the area," Thorndike said.

Former city councilor Claudette Moore also considers the south end a viable location.

"I would put it down toward the sports park," Moore said. "There are a lot of hotels there for when people go to games. I think a conference center there would be a natural. But even if you put it close to Centennial Golf Course, you're still only 10 minutes from the airport and 5 minutes from downtown."

The key, she said, is producing a venue double the size of what's now available.

"You need one huge room to hold 800 people for a dinner," Moore said.

Rather than looking at immediate need, the backdrop should extend into the future, she said.

"It's not so much what we need next year, but for the next 15 to 20 years," Moore said. "Build something that can be expanded."

She mentioned increased transient taxes, such as helped build the sports park, along with participation from the city, county and chamber of commerce to work with a "large hotel developer."

To DeMont's thinking, either the Coquille Tribe or Cow Creek Band could make a convention facility the centerpiece of a casino, or collaborate on a development where Kim's Restaurant operated for generations, near the Bear Creek Golf Course.

"I'm sure they could unite and parlay the land and build something along the lines of The Mill Casino (in North Bend) or Seven Feathers (in Canyonville)."

Local historian George Kramer and developer Doug Neuman, who owns two of the Rogue Valley's primary conference venues — Inn at the Commons and Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites — have different takes.

"Downtown Medford has long focused on the 'Silver Bullet,' " Kramer said. "Some large project that by its sheer scale would address the area's problems. First that was parking. If we build enough parking in downtown, Medford will become more vibrant and succeed. Next it was public uses. If we support the new library and the SOU/RCC (Higher Education) Center, that will bring students into town and they will support local business.

"Then there was the creek. If we develop Bear Creek it will become an amenity, like the River Walk in San Antonio, and people will come to downtown. Then nighttime uses, then The Commons, then residential, and now a conference center."

Kramer doesn't object to any of the above projects, but suggests targeting expenditures on smaller projects.

"I think dozens of smaller projects, spread all over downtown, increase the impact and the potential benefit over some multimillion-dollar one," he said. "If nothing else, dozens of small projects improve the odds that something succeeds. If we build a convention center in downtown, there are still a lot of small things that will need doing for it to be the successful shot in the arm that everyone hopes it could be."

Neuman said he would rather see completion of downtown housing projects and Hawthorne Park.

"Convention centers are all about creating new business," he said. "We're already going to Portland and meeting with meeting planners so that they come down and see what we've done. Once you have another center, you need a whole staff, management team and catering business. Nothing just happens, you're maintaining all the different parts, what people do the rest of the time, places to work out and transportation.

"There are a lot of parts to the puzzle. Needing a bigger place is just a third of the puzzle. The rest is how does it all come together."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

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Some suggest The Commons in downtown Medford could one day be the center of a conference and hotel consortium. Mail Tribune file photo
The Southern Oregon Music Festival has used many venues spread throughout Medford during its annual fall event. Mail Tribune file photo