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Planning the next 50 years

Medford has reached a 'tipping point,' and we all have a stake in it

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler gave an upbeat assessment of the state of the city to the Chamber Forum Monday, citing Medford's robust growth and the development projects that go along with it. He's right that the city's future is bright, but what was missing from his remarks was a vision for how we get from here to there.

The mayor clearly recognizes the need for such a vision, and he will need the help of the whole community to shape the city in ways that enhance rather than detract from its livability.

Invoking Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, Wheeler suggested that Medford may have reached the place where Gladwell says a community begins to become something new. We'd say it has.

Wheeler noted that, at the present growth rate of more than 2 percent per year, Medford's population will double in 50 years. That may seem a long way off, but it means that this community is already changing from a small town to a medium-sized city.

Medford is now home to more than 70,000 people. The next 50 years will see it steadily grow to more than 140,000 ' the size of Eugene today.

The growing pains are already being felt. Wheeler noted that the police and fire departments are asking for more people, but suggested no plan for raising the money to hire them.

— He noted the problem of staff turnover in the city Planning Department and the efforts to replace those who have left. It's difficult, Wheeler said, to handle 400 permit applications a year when your system is designed for 100.

No argument here. But the city's ability to cope with accelerated development depends on more than just filling vacant positions.

Wheeler spoke of the new construction under way or planned downtown: The joint Rogue Community College-Southern Oregon University center, the Bella Vita condominium project. And he mentioned the still-speculative Middleford Commons project that could transform much of downtown in partnership with Lithia Motors if the Fortune 500 auto retailer agrees to build its corporate headquarters there.

We'll see, Wheeler said of the discussions surrounding that idea. We'll see how that goes.

How it will go is largely dependent on the determination of Medford's leaders ' the City Council and the city's administration ' to move from business as usual to anticipating what comes next and driving change rather than being driven by it. That goes not just for Middleford Commons but for the many challenges facing Medford in the years to come.

Those challenges include keeping pace with growing demands for police and fire protection, accommodating growing traffic on city streets, and addressing the need for more affordable housing, to name just a few.

Meeting those challenges will take money ' money the city does not have now but will need as growth inevitably continues and demands for city services increase with it.

Yes, Medford has reached a tipping point. Wheeler is asking for the community to get involved in shaping its future. He'll need all the help he can get.