Howiee's on Front Street draws a mid week crowd. Jennifer Love, on the right in white, joins a group of co-workers from the Lithia Auto offices a few blocks away. - Bob Pennell

Night & Day

Twenty-somethings squeeze into the already-packed 4 Daughters Irish Pub for a pint of ale. A few blocks away, laughter rings out at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, where children, their parents and grandparents are lined up to see a touring act. Across the street, hungry diners entering Jackson Creek Pizza call to a friend to join them.

By night, downtown Medford is booming. By day, it's another story. Except when Rogue Community College students head home from classes, the streets are nearly devoid of pedestrians — even during the lunch hour. And numerous storefronts stand empty as businesses have either failed or moved to other parts of town.

Two notable projects that would've given downtown a dose of energy have fallen flat. In February, the city scrapped plans for one of its biggest undertakings yet — the $25 million Bella Vita mixed-use development at Main and Fir streets. And in November, the city's would-be food co-op ditched plans to open in the Hubbards Hardware building at Main and Riverside Avenue.

Why is it some things succeed in downtown Medford and others don't? What's the secret?

"There are five critical elements for a vibrant downtown: Entertainment, education, arts, retail and residential," said Betsy Manuel, manager for the Heart of Medford Association, adding that Medford has the first three but needs to boost retail and residential.

Top on the list of successes is the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, which has featured international, national and local performances for 11 years.

Craterian Executive Director Stephen McCandless attributes the theater's success to timing and immense community support.

He listed several restaurants, including Porters, 38 on Central Restaurant and Wine Bar and the 4 Daughters Irish Pub, as being hits downtown.

"The formula's been just right in each of those cases," he said. "They found the right atmosphere."

Brothers Dan and Andy La Fond opened Deli Down on Main Street in 1986 and have run a successful restaurant and catering business from the start.

Dan La Fond attributes Deli Down's success in part to the brothers' food service experience before they opened. Both grew up in the hospitality industry and worked in restaurants prior to moving to Medford.

"A lot of restaurants come and go where people, if they've never been in the food service business, don't know what it takes," he said. Owner presence is also a must, he said, whether you've got a restaurant, a bead store or a bookstore.

Carol Sharp has been running Medford Interiors on Main Street for 25 years. She attributes her success to having a variety of products and services, and customers knowing the business.

"We don't rely on foot traffic," she said.

Robert Sharp, her son, said high-end niche stores, such as boutique clothing stores, that would work well in Seattle and other metropolitan places don't make it in Medford.

"It's the generic stores that work well in this town," he said. "Lack of diversification is the reason businesses fail."

Joe Pedrojetti, owner of Joseph Winans Furniture Co. on Main Street, said having several other home furnishing stores nearby, including Scan Design and Larsons, provides a destination spot for customers shopping for their home.

"You can come downtown, have a nice lunch, shop for furniture," he said.

But some business owners would like more support from the city and residents.

Musichead CD store has been on Riverside Avenue for eight years. Prior to that, it was on Main Street for eight years. Owner Eric von Radics said not enough people in Medford really want a downtown.

"We need people who come here to support independent businesses," he said, adding that people will forgo a business like his in order to pick up a CD at Circuit City to save a dollar. And downtown is suffering because of it.

"Not enough of Medford cares," he said.

He said the nightlife in Medford is successful now because the multiple choices draw bigger crowds.

Clay Bearnson, who is in the process of relocating his Gypsy Blues Bar, agrees that nightlife has taken off. He'd like to see more support for newcomers from city departments and local agencies, so getting up and running is a collaborative effort. He said businesses starting up downtown have enough struggles and challenges.

He'd also like to see more downtown events. Many cities, such as Eugene, have numerous food stands or hold a weekly outdoor market.

"Why is there no Saturday market in Medford?" he said. "Maybe use that Middleford Alley for an annual downtown Medford block party."

But downtown events get mixed reviews.

Carol Sharp said she doesn't mind the events that are held downtown, but some, like the Medford Cruise or even sidewalk sales, aren't the kind of activities that draw potential customers for her.

"A lot of the things they've tried to have downtown have been more annoying than business-promoting," she said. "The best festival they have is the Art in Bloom festival. It brings people that are looking to shop — if we could have more things going on that are like that, it would help businesses."

La Fond said Medford puts effort into creating events, but those like the Winter Light Festival often just don't get a huge turnout.

"The city tries to promote (an event) but a lot of times the public doesn't support it. We don't have that big engine to fuel downtown Medford," he said, adding that he'd like to see more "community unity."

Carol Sharp said parking downtown has continued to be a hot topic among business owners. She said there's plenty of parking available but customers have trouble finding it.

"People still don't know there's a parking structure," she said, adding that she'd like to see more signs on Main Street directing people to the parking structure.

Bearnson said customers complain about strict parking enforcement. He said as a bar owner, he would like some leniency for drinking patrons who choose to take a cab home. Instead, they return the next morning to find a parking ticket on their windshields.

McCandless said one business' ultimate parking arrangement would conflict with another's.

"I know parking continues to be an issue," he said.

Another ongoing topic is turning Bear Creek into a downtown focal point.

There have been numerous efforts by the Medford Urban Renewal Agency and other city boards and committees to start a Bear Creek enhancement program, but they have yet to get off the ground. An obstacle is the Interstate 5 viaduct, which was built directly above the creek in the 1960s.

"If we had it all to do over again, we wouldn't do it this way," said Medford City Councilman Al Densmore. "I think we can do things to dress it up a bit."

While some point to a specific local issue such as parking or the viaduct, others blame the nation's economy for downtown businesses' struggles.

Densmore, who recently moved his financial adviser office to Main Street, said financial difficulties and vacant storefronts are temporary.

"We're in the down part of an economic cycle," he said, adding that it should turn around soon. "Interest rates are dropping and at some point there's equilibrium."

Whether or not the economic downturn and lending crisis were totally to blame, both Bella Vita and the Medford Market were victims of it.

After 21/2; years of effort, the Medford Market learned in August that its major lender, National Cooperative Bank, tabled a $1.5 million loan because of stricter lending criteria. Supporters are working to bring some version of a food co-op back to Medford, though they may not be looking for a downtown site.

Bella Vita's developer and MURA threw in the towel after the project was unable to secure funding because of the national downturn in the real estate market and the mortgage-lending crisis. Jackie Rodgers, MURA director, said any investment MURA has put into the block is going to be there for another development.

Eric Maxwell closed his downtown Papillon Rouge clothing store last year. He said it's not that his business was failing but with two other Medford stores, he just had too much to handle.

"I still love downtown," he said. "I think our downtown will come back, it's just going through a fluctuation."

A business owner must be dedicated to make a go of it, he said.

"I think there's a lot of ideas that can work downtown," he said. "People have an idea but they don't have complete 110 percent commitment."

Pedrojetti said the future is bright for Medford.

"We just need to get through all this," he said. "Everybody's just kind of struggling." He's sure there will be development at the Bella Vita site once the economy bounces back, and even though he's consolidating his business into one building, he has no regrets.

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere but where I am right now," he said.

Many believe downtown's future lies in a nine-block redevelopment project called The Commons, which will include residential units, shops and restaurants, park blocks and a 10-story headquarters for Lithia Motors Inc. Construction is set to begin later this year.

La Fond said The Commons will bring hundreds of employees, residents and shoppers to downtown.

"I think that's going to be huge," he said.

Densmore agreed, and said The Commons will bring employment and will likely improve the downtown housing market. He said just like the Black Bear Diner will be in a prime location next year when the south Medford interchange project is complete, the Bella Vita site is strategically in a great location.

Heart of Medford's Manuel said people need to look long-term.

"We have to be prepared to ride things out and take it slowly because of the economy," she said, adding it will bounce back. "So what if Bella Vita didn't make it — the infrastructure is in."

Downtown looks much different from what it was several years ago, she said. Improvements include new facades and sidewalks, Vogel Plaza, a new Central Library and a new secondary education building, due to open by fall term.

"MURA has poured money into downtown and done their job. The police have done their job. It's just poised and waiting for development," she said.

And with thriving entertainment and restaurants, downtown's well on its way, she said.

"Then when Lithia comes in it's only going to raise the bar more."

Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail

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