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Why not Medford?

Building on the success of Kids Unlimited, the west Medford neighborhood surrounding this popular youth organization may soon get an economic and social boost with a little help from Warren Buffett and other philanthropists.

At a Thursday meeting, Medford City Council got briefed on a proposal from Purpose Built Communities to improve one of the state's most blighted neighborhoods, roughly bordered by Riverside and Central avenues and Maple and Manzanita streets.

Purpose Built, an Atlanta-based organization with backers who include billionaire investor Buffett, has been looking at the Liberty Park neighborhood around Kids Unlimited along Riverside Avenue that has been plagued with high unemployment and poverty. The organization has helped communities in 13 states.

Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, said he viewed other successful projects by Purpose Built, particularly a one-square-mile neighborhood in Atlanta known as East Lake that went through a 20-year redevelopment effort.

"It was a resurrection of this failing community," he said. "If it can happen in Atlanta, why not in Medford?"

Melissa Devereaux, vice president with Purpose Built at its Oakland, California, office, said her organization offers free consulting services to communities to help organize local efforts that lead to revitalization.

The organization and its backers don't invest in the developments in the community. Instead, Devereaux said, local leaders work with public and private developers to build high-quality affordable housing, develop a cradle-to-career educational path for low-income children, develop health programs for residents and create a community organization that will "quarterback" the various projects.

Councilors listened for almost an hour as Cole and Devereaux explained the concept.

City Manager Brian Sjothun asked, "What is the city's role in this?"

Devereaux said the main idea behind Purpose Built is to develop partnerships with various private businesses and public agencies involved in housing, such as the Jackson County Housing Authority.

She said the city might have a role in helping remove some barriers to development.

"The private sector is the key player," she said.

Since the project has such a long timeline, Devereaux said land would be acquired slowly for housing projects and there would be an effort to preserve historical properties and neighborhoods.

In other communities, improving conditions in neighborhoods have spurred commercial development, including shopping centers, coffee shops and other businesses, she said.

Devereaux said the academic standards in the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta had risen so high that children who participated in the free and reduced lunch program now compete academically with children in affluent neighborhoods.

Kids Unlimited's charter school is attempting to follow the same model, now offering K-6 education to 300 children. Expansion plans call for a K-8 program that will serve almost 500 children. Kids Unlimited's program currently has a waiting list of 300 children, Cole said.

Lithia Motors has been involved in the early stages of the effort, Devereaux and Cole told the council. In particular, empty auto dealerships on Central Avenue are being looked at for some kind of development.

Devereaux said the exact boundaries of the redevelopment area haven't been nailed down, but she said it's possible to extend it well beyond the Liberty Park neighborhood to encompass more of west Medford near Jackson Elementary School.

In the Liberty Park neighborhood, the civilian unemployment rate is 16 percent, far higher than the 4 percent countywide. Low-income residents make up 91 percent of the population, and 37 percent live in poverty, Devereaux said. In addition, 71 percent of the housing units are renter occupied.

Councilor Kay Brooks lives one block from Kids Unlimited and she has heard of five drive-by shootings in four years.

"I can tell you this neighborhood is really blighted," she said.

Kids Unlimited removed several problem houses as part of its expansion efforts, she said.

Despite the problems in the neighborhood, Brooks said Liberty Park is flanked by new development going on toward the north near Trader Joe's as well as the downtown area to the south.

"We're right in the middle of everything," she said.

Brooks and Councilor Kevin Stine said they will be encouraging the council to extend the life of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency to help develop more projects in the Liberty Park neighborhood.

Many councilors have expressed concern Liberty Park was slighted by the city as part of the previous urban renewal effort.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or by email at dmann@mailtribune.com.

Purpose Built Communities by Mail Tribune on Scribd

Construction crews work Thursday on the expansion of Kids Unlimited in Medford. Purpose Built Communities hopes to build on that success and revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]