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Urban renewal will help restore Talent, boost fire readiness

The terrible first-hand memories I have from the Almeda fire are one of many reasons why I support Talent’s urban renewal plan to restore our community.

I spent over 36 hours fighting the Almeda fire alongside my co-workers at the Plant Oregon nursery. We took many trips to town with our large nursery water trucks filled from our well, because the lines that supply water to Talent were destroyed by the blaze at the very moment of greatest need.

A lesson our community learned was that we were seriously unprepared for the kind of fire that can happen in this era of climate change. Firefighters and their equipment were on the scene, but that alone was not nearly enough.

The Talent Urban Renewal plan proposed by our town’s elected leaders will provide funding for addressing fire prevention and preparedness on the front end. It will help restore our infrastructure and our buildings in ways that are more fire-resistant — filling a need that is not part of the mission or budget of the fire district.

That will save both lives and money for our community. To me, that is well worth the 4.5% of the fire district’s budget that will be affected.

Many people who had to flee the fire had no idea which way to go. The urban renewal plan can also address that by working with other agencies to improve disaster preparedness, signage, wayfinding, routing, and hubs to go to in emergencies.

State law (ORS 457.160) authorizes a city to adopt an urban renewal district for up to 30 years when “an area is in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation as a result of a flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, storm or other catastrophe.”

An urban renewal plan will allow Talent to borrow money to invest in restoring our community in the burn zone without raising tax rates — and then pay back that money with the increase in property tax revenue that results from the improvements.

Medford, Phoenix, Jacksonville and Central Point are among the more than 75 cities in Oregon that have used this tool to put local revenue to work for needed improvements without raising tax rates. Jackson County also operated an urban renewal district for White City.

While fire prevention and resistance is one reason that residents like me support Talent’s urban renewal plan, there are other strong reasons as well.

I have lived most of my life in Talent, attended Talent Middle School and Phoenix High School, and got my higher education from Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.

Talent is my home, and I want my son, born a few months ago, to be able to make it his home, too. To do that, we need to keep Talent affordable for the people who live here.

Right after the fire, I was one of hundreds of people who turned out for a town hall meeting with our elected officials. Speaker after speaker made it clear that our priority must be to restore our community, bring all our families home, and maintain our diversity.

The urban renewal plan can generate funding, without increasing tax rates, to carry out that mandate by developing new housing stock for lower income households, acquiring land for housing development, developing a purchase program to assist families who otherwise couldn’t afford it, promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, and other innovative strategies.

I am part of a small business in Talent that was lucky enough to be able to continue after the fire, but we lost 60% of our businesses.

The urban renewal plan can help bring back those kinds of small-town businesses by such strategies as developing incubator hubs for small business startup and growth, recruiting new small businesses into the community, providing support for workforce training, and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in business assistance.

Urban renewal can also generate funding to improve walkability to schools, connections to the Highway 99 corridor and greenway, our parks and much more.

Of course, Talent will also have to continue to seek other kinds of funding, whether from federal, state or foundation sources. But those grants will never be large enough or last long enough alone to do what we need to do to fully recover.

Urban renewal will not solve all our problems or restore our community overnight. However, it is an essential tool and deserves the support of every Talent resident and everyone in Southern Oregon who wants to see us come back from the fire.

Mike Oxendine of Talent is chairman of the Talent Urban Forestry Committee.