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COVID-19 funds to help diversify economy, aid homeless

Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. has received $400,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help diversify the economy, boost tourism and aid homeless people.

SOREDI is the economic development district for Jackson and Josephine counties.

It will use up to $150,000 of the funding to create an updated plan for Ashland and Jacksonville to diversify their economies. A consultant will likely be hired to do the work, said Colleen Padilla, executive director for SOREDI.

Ashland has been hard-hit by the closure of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season due to COVID-19.

The Britt Music and Arts Festival, a staple in Jacksonville, also shut down for the season.

“Businesses and venues in Ashland and Jacksonville are so reliant on tourism. This will help so they don’t have all their eggs in one basket,” Padilla said.

Because of Ashland and Jacksonville’s proximity to other cities and their economic impact on the Rogue Valley, moves to strengthen those towns’ economies will benefit everyone, she said.

SOREDI will use $60,000 from the COVID-19 relief funds to research ways to generate more money for organizations in Jackson and Josephine counties that promote tourism.

“It’s very important to us that these dollars impact our whole region,” Padilla said.

One option is to form a tourism recovery district in Jackson and Josephine counties funded by an increase in local hotel taxes. Local tourism promotion organizations lack strong funding streams to market the region, according to SOREDI’s application for the federal relief dollars.

Another option is for Travel Southern Oregon, Travel Medford, Travel Ashland and Travel Grants Pass to team up on post-COVID-19 marketing and visitor outreach initiatives.

SOREDI will use $30,000 to help Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit group that is managing a Medford campground along Biddle Road for homeless people. Rogue Retreat launched the camping spot in July to provide a place for people to stay and get services. Authorities had previously encouraged homeless people to shelter in place along the Bear Creek Greenway during the pandemic, but spiking fire danger this summer has them urging people to move to the safer location.

Rogue Retreat also helps homeless people in Grants Pass and offers other services in Jackson County, including the Kelly Shelter and Hope Village. Its goal is to help homeless people find a stable place to sleep and take care of daily necessities, then work with case managers on short- and long-term goals toward self-sufficiency.

Rogue Retreat served over 459 people in 2019, and 180 of those gained employment, according to the organization.

Another $70,000 from the federal COVID-19 aid will help small communities in the two counties. Projects could range from facade improvements to adding durable soap dispensers to public bathrooms. Talent, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Butte Falls, Shady Cove, Eagle Point, Gold Hill, Rogue River and Cave Junction could benefit from that pool of money.

SOREDI, which has a half-dozen employees, will use $90,000 of the aid to help cover its own staffing and technology costs. The organization said it expects to see a drop-off in membership revenues, event registrations and sponsorships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOREDI also offered three months of interest forgiveness to businesses that are using its loan program. The lost interest earnings will add up to an estimated $40,000.

On other fronts, SOREDI has been helping to get relief funds directly into the hands of struggling local business owners and nonprofit groups.

In July, Jackson County commissioners set aside $355,000 in county and state funds to aid businesses and nonprofits. They tapped SOREDI to process the aid applications.

That money has been used up and SOREDI is no longer accepting applications, Padilla said.

SOREDI expects to work on additional aid programs for businesses in the near future, she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Ashland is searching for ways to diversify its tourism-based economy after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered venues like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune