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Andrew Hendrix, assistant manager, left, helps a customer Tuesday at Motorcycle USA in Medford. A group of national business consultants recently toured the business, which has successfully built a national name for itself. - Julia Moore

Lack of image could be keeping companies away

Tom McCall passed from the scene decades ago, but the message forever associated with the former governor, "Visit, But Don't Stay," remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many.

The long-held perception of Oregon's standoffish nature surfaced recently when Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. hosted a group of national site consultants earlier this month.

"In whatever way we have attempted to create another brand for Oregon, that's the brand that's still here," SOREDI Executive Director Ron Fox said.

SOREDI showed five consultants, from the Puget Sound to New Jersey, the area's diverse economy, its culture and natural wonders, and then asked for their professional insight.

While there are many reasons for visiting the vicinity, the compelling arguments for setting up shop here still are wanting, they said.

There aren't a lot of distinguishing factors in people's minds when discussing Southern Oregon, said Bill Fredrick, president and chief executive officer of Wadley-Donovan GrowthTech in Springfield, N.J.

"You have no image, and some say that's bad," Fredrick said. "If you take someone from the East Coast or Midwest and say, 'What does Medford, Oregon, bring to mind?' ... most wouldn't be able to tell you the first thing."

He conceded some people might know of Harry & David and a motorcycle enthusiast might know Motorcycle USA is located here.

"I didn't know you had heavy-lift helicopter operations here," Fredrick said, referring to Erickson Air-Crane and Carson Helicopter. "I didn't realize Crater Lake was close either; I thought it was farther northeast."

The Rogue Valley has long enticed retirees and equity refugees moving from more expensive domains who put a premium on an outdoor lifestyle with a dab of culture. Attracting manufacturers and industrial investment has been another matter.

Wood-products mills which sprouted throughout the region in the first half of the 20th century have dwindled. Air-quality standards have closed the door to some industries, while the distance to major markets has thwarted others.

Nonetheless, the region has a bona fide survivor in gift and gourmet food purveyor Harry & David and still-expanding frozen organic food manufacturer Amy's Kitchen. E-commerce is thriving in Southern Oregon, and technology companies continue to pop up.

Continued double-digit unemployment in Jackson and Josephine counties is a constant reminder that new movers and shakers would be a welcome addition.

Still, business and industry travelers on trips from Seattle or Portland to the San Francisco Bay Area tend to pass over or through Southern Oregon without giving the area much thought, and the potential for business development often is lost.

"The visit reinforced my view we need to raise our flag a little higher and get people to slow down," Fox said.

Fredrick said the Rogue Valley's distance to large markets is a surmountable obstacle, especially if Southern Oregon University and Oregon Institute of Technology are mixed into the equation. He cites Burlington, Vt. — much closer to Montreal than Boston — as an example of a town where start-ups can mature into national or international companies.

"I found those similarities in the communities in working with entrepreneurs," he said. "In a nurturing environment, those companies will grow. If you have a technology council linked with the university working with local officials, elected state officials and financing opportunities, they can succeed, although some will stay small."

Don Moody, who works with trucking firms, among others, at the Tacoma office of CBRE, said new federal rules about driving hours will redefine the range of many companies.

"The biggest problem is that Medford is not strategically located for the new driving times," said Moody, a first vice president with the world's largest commercial real estate firm. "You will be able to drive 11 out of 15 hours. The problem is that Medford is eight hours from Seattle. Unless there is a load sitting there waiting, they are going to lose a couple hours driving time."

Moody has been drawing lots of circles on maps with a software program, identifying areas where clients may want to locate.

"We have a lot of properties, primarily placed around freeways," he said. "When we start drawing circles from San Francisco and the Bay Area, we still have the same problem. But another reason we're drawing circles is to see where they ended up in California, because there is so much traffic going north and south."

Moody said lack of rail access also is a liability for Southern Oregon.

"People coming in are going to want some access to rail," he said. "If there was an express train in the Medford area, it would help dramatically."

Business clients ultimately decide where they are going to invest, but if they are unaware of a location, there is not much of a chance to attract their investment, Moody said.

"I've never seen an area where a person couldn't do more to target industries," Moody said. "That's a big part of what we do. We don't just put up a sign and wait for someone to call. We try to decide ahead of time who our targeted user is and go after that specific industry."

Kathy Mussio, managing partner at Atlas Insight, which provides guidance for manufacturers, green-energy companies, financial institutions and insurance companies, made her first venture here with a client in mind.

"It remains to be seen whether there would be enough existing buildings," Mussio said. "This company does not want to build to suit. I think the transportation aspect would work in its favor."

But Oregon has liabilities, she said.

"The state has fairly stringent regulations and high taxation, which works against it in its competitiveness," Mussio said. "But, overall, it may work."

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