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Leg up for Liberty?

Friends warned Stephanie and Camron Dodenhoff against living in the Liberty Park neighborhood north of downtown Medford.

“People said, ‘You’re moving to the swamp,” says Camron, 28.

The neighborhood, roughly bounded by McAndrews Road, Jackson Street, Central Avenue and Interstate 5, is one of the poorest in Medford: 91 percent of the residents are low-income, unemployment hovers around 16 percent and a third of the people moved in within the past year.

“It was a little bit of a culture shock,” says Stephanie, 26, who previously lived in north Jackson County. The couple moved into the neighborhood two months ago with their two children.

Like other residents, the Dodenhoffs found troublesome issues, including drug houses on many streets, but they and their neighbors watch out for each other, they say.

They say they welcome a recent proposal by Kids Unlimited, a nonprofit youth center in the area, and Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based organization with backers such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, to revitalize the neighborhood and possibly other areas in west Medford.

Ideas include developing financing to remodel run-down houses, increasing the number of affordable units and finding uses for the many former car dealerships that have sat empty on Riverside and Central avenues since Lithia Motors moved those operations to a central location on Highway 62 starting in 2007.

Purpose Built has fostered local efforts to convert ghettos into safer neighborhoods in 17 other states, and has found revitalization helps improve academic levels at schools, the organization says.

Boundaries of such an effort in Medford haven't been finalized, but they could extend as far west as Columbus Avenue and as far south as Stewart Avenue.

Stephanie says she likes all the proposals she’s heard so far, particularly building more affordable housing and reaching out to residents for input on the improvement efforts.

“I’m all for making it safe for the kiddos,” she says, holding her well-behaved 9-month-old Stella.

“We’re game to interact with the community to do what we need to do,” Camron says.

The Dodenhoffs have a close relationship with their neighbor, Deanna Luther, a 34-year-old mother of two who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years.

“This particular street, we look out for each other,” Luther says.

She, too, is concerned about drug activity and the unwanted traffic to and from drug houses.

“The police need to patrol it more,” Luther says, echoing a sentiment expressed by other neighbors interviewed by the Mail Tribune.

She and others don't think much of the new neighborhood park, particularly because of its lack of swings. Though the Liberty Park neighborhood was included in an urban renewal district that generated $70 million over 25 years, the tiny park was the only amenity the neighborhood received, a disservice the Medford City Council acknowledges.

“That park is disappointing,” she says.

Purpose Built has compiled data comparing housing, income, race and transiency in the Liberty Park neighborhood with west Medford, Medford as a whole and Oregon.

Liberty Park's poverty rate, for example, is more than four times higher than the others: 37 percent, compared with 9 percent in west Medford, 8 percent in Medford and 7 percent in Oregon. Its transiency rate (percentage of people who've moved in within the last year) also is much higher: 35 percent, compared with 19 percent for west Medford, 21 percent for Medford and 17 percent for the state.

“Medford has one of the highest transiency rates in Oregon,” says Melissa Devereaux, vice president of Purpose Built. 

The median income for the Liberty Park neighborhood is $14,674, compared with $42,519 in Medford, and out of its 526 housing units, 71 percent are rentals and 14 percent are vacant.

All of west Medford has a median income of $34,534, and of its 15,234 housing units, 44 percent are rentals and 8 percent are vacant, rates comparable to Medford as a whole.

Devereaux says the revitalization effort is still in the early stages, and a community leader hasn’t come forward yet to champion the effort, although Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, made the initial contact with Purpose Built.

“This has to be led locally,” Devereaux says. “We don’t have a list of targeted cities. We go where we are invited.”

If a community embraces the idea, Purpose Built develops a strategic plan with step-by-step goals that help guide a neighborhood through the phases of a revitalization effort that could take 10 years or longer. For more information on the organization, visit http://purposebuiltcommunities.org/.

Chuck Martinez, a commercial real estate developer and Kids Unlimited board president, grew up in west Medford and lived for a time in the Liberty Park neighborhood when he was a child.

He says a combination of efforts is needed to help improve the neighborhood.

“The best thing the city could do is take a bolder step than they are inclined to take,” he says.

The city of Medford will be looking at expanding urban renewal over the next few months, including looking at projects that could benefit Liberty Park. 

Martinez, who now lives in Camas, Washington, but returns to Medford about twice a month, says economic and physical blight are the two major issues that need to be tackled in Liberty Park and other west Medford neighborhoods that are plagued with drugs and crime.

Martinez proposes the city purchase the empty auto dealerships, then work with organizations or private companies to build hundreds of apartments on the properties, with a mix of affordable housing, market-rate housing and residences for seniors.

He says he’s seen urban renewal efforts in Portland centered on new residences that have transformed neighborhoods.

“A residential upgrade has been the spark in other communities,” Martinez says.

Some local leaders have suggested retail for the lots, but Martinez says retail has become difficult to sustain in many communities throughout the country.

Cole says he’d like to see an expanded area for revitalization that could include large swaths of west Medford.

“We’re looking at areas with the largest concentrations of blight,” Cole says.

Kids Unlimited, which includes a charter school and extensive after-school and sports programs, is undergoing a major expansion, but Cole says his organization needs to grow even more. He says he’s been interested in buying the former Volkswagen dealership on Riverside, which is just to the south of Kids Unlimited. He says he’d like to create a literacy center or health-care center for the people served by his organization.

While most residents interviewed in Liberty Park supported revitalization, some had concerns.

Jessica Martin, a 36-year-old who has lived in a rented house for a year, says she likes the idea of creating more affordable housing, but didn’t want people forced out of their rental so it could be remodeled.

“A lot of people who rent don’t have good credit,” she says.

Other neighbors realize the police have their hands full, but expressed frustration with ongoing drug activity. Kids Unlimited’s expansion efforts led to the demolition of several houses that were occupied by transients and drug users, however.

“My biggest problem is that lot over there,” says Jim Gresham, a 47-year-old father of four, referring to an area behind the old Lithia Honda dealership. “I think it’s a meth lot."

The lot has a trailer located on it that Gresham thinks is there illegally.

Other than that lot, and the recent arrest of someone who fled police and tried to hide in Gresham's backyard, Gresham says the neighborhood is pretty safe.

“For the most part the area has cleared up in the past year,” he says.

Gresham says a neighborhood watch has been successful at stopping unwanted activities, and local residents walk through the park to conduct needle checks to make sure it’s safe.

“My biggest complaint is the adults hanging out in the children’s park,” he says. 

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Camron and Stephanie Dodenhoff hold their daughter Stella, 9 months, outside their home near Kids Unlimited in Medford on Wednesday. The Dodenhoffs say they would like to see a greater police presence in their neighborhood. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch