Four generations and four terms
Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler, who will be starting his fourth term in January.
Q: How did you end up living in Southern Oregon?
Gary: I was born and raised here. I am a fourth-generation Oregonian. I went through the school system and graduated from Medford Senior High School, which was the only high school. I wasn’t big enough to make the football team, but I did a little wrestling and track and other activities such as band and orchestra.
Q: What about college?
Gary: I started at Southern Oregon University. Then I went up to Pacific University, which is in Forest Grove, to finish my bachelor’s degree. I continued in their College of Optometry for my doctorate degree.
Q: Why did you come back to Southern Oregon?
Gary: I had a couple years in the army as a captain and worked at an army hospital in Arizona. My wife, she’s also an optometrist, moved around as a child. Her father was a golf professional, he built golf courses, so they lived everywhere. She was born in Arizona but lived in Ashland for a while. We didn’t want to stay in Arizona. Neither of us wanted to live in the desert, we wanted to come back where it was green. All of my family is here, so we came back to Southern Oregon.
Q: How long have you served as mayor of Medford?
Gary: Well, this will be my 13th year. I have had three full terms, and this is my first year in my fourth term. I have three more years to go after this year.
Q: How many hours a week would you say that you spend doing city business?
Gary: Oh, it depends, but 20 to 30 hours if you take into consideration study time to get prepared for meetings. I meet on a regular basis with the city attorney and the city manager. Then we have our study sessions, regular meetings and extracurricular activities. I just got to dedicate a new piece of art at the police station, which is really cool. Arbor Day comes along, and Jim Hutchins (who is standing within earshot) drags me out to see how many fish are running up Bear Creek. It’s fun.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for Medford?
Gary: If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have given you a totally different answer. Things change, as life does. The things we’re facing now probably weren’t even on our radar 10 years ago; things such as homelessness and marijuana.
We are a bigger city with bigger-city issues that weren’t here 10, 15, 20 years ago; and we’re going to get bigger. Southern Oregon is an attractive area to live, the whole valley, not just Medford. Our city is growing, and we’re expanding our urban growth boundaries, which was a big process for us. The proposal is at Department of Land Conservation and Development, and they’re combing through our plan. We may get it back with some suggestions or maybe a remand. We tweaked it a little bit when Jackson County reviewed it. This was a big process, and that will expand our footprint by about 1,500 acres — primarily for housing. The Water Commission needs to know where we’re going so they can plan ahead, as does Public Works for sewer, storm drains and streets. We’re still preserving farmland and green space around us. Now we’re starting to work on transportation, which is a big multiyear plan. I find that most of what we do is planning. We really try to look out into the future to see where we’re going, where we want to go and how we get there.
Q: What would make Medford a more attractive city? Or do you feel like we’re attracting too many people?
Gary: I’m not Tom McCall (laughter), so I’m not going to tell people to stay away or anything like that. What I would like to see is good orderly growth. I would really like to encourage some urban housing, downtown apartment living. Entertainment options are one of the key pieces to get people to want to live downtown. We’ve got the Holly Theater that’s nearing completion. We’ve got the Craterian, along with the Randall Theater and some other smaller venues. There’s going to be plenty of cultural activities, and that just adds to the life of a city. If you get a 24/7 city with people living in the downtown area and with appropriate services, a market, pharmacies and maybe professional services, it becomes attractive. The addition of Rogue Community College and SOU, at the Higher Education Center downtown, adds to the mix.
Q: How is the air quality of Medford now?
Gary: We’ve got good air quality now. We’ve really worked on that over the years. It’s considerably better than when I was younger. Sometimes Mother Nature brings it on in the form of forest fires and smoke. We don’t have smoke-stack industries anymore. It’s all clean industry. We’ve got good infrastructure, so we can attract clean employers.
Q: What are your dreams for Medford and its citizens?
Gary: From my standpoint, what I would like to see is a very livable, good, working-class city. Our population doubles from 80,000 to twice that during the daytime when people come here to work. I’ve seen estimates of anywhere from 120,000 to 150,000 people during work days. Medford is an employment center for the Rogue Valley. Not that other cities aren’t contributing, they all do. But Medford’s sort of the driver here. So I would like Medford to continue to be a good, livable, working city with good amenities. We’ve got a terrific park system that is very attractive. We’ve got a great school system. The presence of higher education, downtown is healthy. Our libraries are back up and running. We see cultural events coming in.
We need tourism. Our hotel and motel tax brings in a lot of money for promotion. We’re trying to become recreationally oriented for tourism, where people have trails, bikes and other kinds of outdoor activities. You add the amenities and that is attractive to people and young families. You want those things and jobs.
You’ve got to have places for people to work and earn a living. RCC and SOU can help our community to train or retrain people to fit the jobs that are going to be coming in the future. Future jobs are going to be different than they are now. I just want a good livable city that is safe and clean, that has things for people to do.
Q: What is satisfying about being the mayor?
Gary: I hope that I can help move the city in a good direction. I want to be positive force for change. I would rather thoughtfully plan for changes than to just let things happen in an unorganized way. Overall, it’s fun to be in the mix, just to know what’s going on.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to be more involved in the Southern Oregon community?
Gary: There are literally hundreds of things to become involved in. You’ve got everything from the charitable groups, the not-for-profit organizations, city boards, commissions and others. The county is the same way. There are lots of volunteer areas. Oregon has always been a good volunteer state. We have a history of volunteerism, so if people just take a look around, there is a lot to do and be involved with.
Q: Once you put down roots and say, “This is my home,” are you more invested in the community?
Gary: That’s true for a lot of people, but quite honestly the population is a lot more mobile. The things that I read about the newer generation is that they’re going to change their jobs maybe three, four or five times in a lifetime. I never changed my job. I’ve always been an optometrist. I’m not dissatisfied with my lot in life. I’ve enjoyed it, but the younger generation is much more mobile.
I was talking to a young person this morning at my practice. She just graduated from SOU. I asked her what she’s going to do next. She said, “Well, I’d like to take a little time off and make some connections over in France. I have some friends there. I might go over and stay in France for a little bit just to sort of see things.” I got to thinking about when I was her age. I had gotten my bachelor’s degree, but Vietnam was in full swing. I couldn’t drop out of college or I would lose my deferment. I enlisted in the army after college, but it was on my own terms. If I had said, “Well, I’d like to drop out and maybe spend a month or two in Mexico or whatever,” it wasn’t going to happen then.
Q: What is the Medford visioning process?
Gary: Well, we went through a visioning process recently for the city. It was led by a very erudite and smart lady, Megan Davis Lightman. Where do we want to be? What are we doing? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? Where do we want to be at some point? All of that. It was really a positive experience to go through that because you really have to think things through. What are our next steps as a city? Where do we go and what do we do? It’s just a whole plethora of things that I would love to see happen. Many probably not in my lifetime, but I don’t worry about legacies or that sort of thing. That’s not why I do this.
Q: Why do you do it?
Gary: The city’s been good to me. I grew up here. I earned college money here. I worked downtown in retail through high school and college. I’ve had a really good life, so this is paying back for me. My wife, Treasure, and I choose to give in this way. She is truly a partner in all of this. It’s what we want to do. I feel good about it.
— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.