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Urban renewal?

A 30-year-old urban renewal agency has either outlived its welcome or could be reborn to address the ongoing blight problems that still exist around downtown Medford, city officials say.

"I don't think MURA (Medford Urban Renewal Agency) did justice to the Beatty-Manzanita area," Councilor Dick Gordon said recently. "I feel the MURA district was derelict in not redeveloping the Beatty-Manzanita district."

In order to create MURA in 1988, local officials needed an area with a high poverty rate and found it in a neighborhood to the west of Kids Unlimited on Central Avenue. But, over the years, the only significant project that benefited this neighborhood was a small park, called Liberty Park.

Gordon and other councilors met recently to discuss options that either would continue MURA or disband it and seek a bond to pay for other projects. The council will continue to discuss its options over the next few months.

Possible projects include filling empty auto dealership lots, creating affordable housing, helping build a convention center or building an Olympic-sized community pool.

Since it was started in 1988, MURA has spent more than half its $67 million on parking lots and parking structures. One high-profile project was The Commons, with Pear Blossom Park and the Lithia Motors headquarters as its main features. Other notable projects include renovating Hawthorne Park and the façade improvement program for downtown businesses.

The city would see an infusion of $1.3 million annually if MURA was disbanded, which could pay for a $24 million bond, payable over a 30-year period.

But councilors didn't express unanimity about where to spend the money.

"I would like to see a swimming pool, and that's it," Councilor Clay Bearnson said.

Councilor Michael Zarosinski said, "A pool feels like a bit of a stretch."

He said it would be hard to justify extending the life of MURA if the city was not going to address blight specifically.

Councilor Kevin Stine said he thinks that if the city has a specific project in mind, it should keep MURA.

"I don't know if the pool is the right thing to do," he said.

Councilor Daniel Bunn also thought attacking blight should be the main focus of MURA.

Mayor Gary Wheeler said he thought the council could sell extending MURA to the public if it had the right projects to promote.

The existing urban renewal district is about two miles long, from McAndrews Road to just south of Barnett Road. The district could keep operating until 2025 to pay off the bonds. However, city officials anticipate bonds could be paid off earlier, possibly by 2018.

MURA gets its money from a portion of property taxes plus a special levy that brings in about $2.5 million annually. However, the special levy would end once the bonds are paid off.

Alison Chan, city finance director, said that without the special levy, the city would receive $1.3 million annually in extra taxes.

If the city wanted to continue MURA or create an entirely new urban renewal agency, it could take about nine months to go through the process, Chan said.

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

Empty store fronts, crumbling sidewalks and vacant lots are contributing to the blight in the Beatty-Manzanita neighborhood near Central Avenue. Mail Tribune/ Denise Baratta
Liberty Park in the Beatty-Manzanita neighborhood was a Medford Urban Renewal Agency project to help benefit the area. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch