Phoenix urban renewal plan gets positive marks

PHOENIX — With nearly $675,000 in funding, urban renewal is well on its way to becoming a reality for this small town.

A dozen people turned out for an open house Thursday at Phoenix High School, getting their first look at preliminary plans for a revitalized city core.

A series of open-house meetings concluded Saturday that gave residents a chance to look at maps and see concepts included in preliminary plans.

Marla Cates, executive director of the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency, discussed topics ranging from funding to pedestrian safety and aesthetics along Bear Creek.

Founded in 2005, the urban renewal agency is fine-tuning plans started in 1997 and 2002.

Basic concepts of the City Center Plan include retaining significant buildings and natural features of the town, using the Grange and City Hall buildings as anchors, creating a new street and parking behind existing structures and providing for a variety of housing types for diverse income groups.

In addition, Cates said, more visually obvious entrances to the city on both ends will help "Main Street look and feel and act like a main street."

Cates said future meetings would encourage public comment and likely result in committees forming to allow community members to design portions of the revitalization efforts.

Former council member Terry Helfrich attended Thursday's meeting, eager to find out what kind of plans were in store for the city.

Helfrich said he was encouraged that urban renewal is already funded through existing money and that it will contribute to increased property values when it's finished.

Funding for the projects comes from an urban renewal taxing district. All property-tax revenues above the amount collected in 2005 are diverted to urban renewal until the agency sunsets in 2032.

If all goes well, property values in the urban renewal district would increase as urban renewal projects are completed, which would create more tax revenue to be invested in downtown.

About $673,000 has been accumulated since November 2007.

Helfrich said the funding plan provides an effective way for a small city to afford big improvements.

"Urban renewal is a great concept and a great way to siphon money into a project," he said. "Otherwise, you'd probably have to wait for investors to eventually show up and things might never happen."

Michael Chesney, a financial advisor for Edward Jones who recently relocated to Phoenix, said he was encouraged by plans unveiled Thursday.

"Right now, I think people look at Phoenix as a pass-through community," Chesney said. "I think, long term, Phoenix really needs to identify who they want to be. You've got the hotels in Medford, the Britt (Festivals) in Jacksonville and theater in Ashland. What's going to define Phoenix and make somebody want to get out of their car and stay for a while?"

Helfrich said Phoenix had "huge potential" as a place to visit, instead of merely passing through.

"I think Phoenix is kind of a hidden gem," he said.

"Urban renewal might seem like a hard concept now, but if you think about it, the (Bear Creek) Greenway was just a hard concept someone had years ago. It used to be a pile of blackberries and look at it now."

Future urban-renewal improvements could include redevelopment of the decades-old Bicentennial Park and improvements to make the Bear Creek corridor more of a focal point.

Other ideas include a façade-improvement grant program, which would assist owners of pre-1960 buildings with restoration efforts, and a Highway 99 corridor project coordinated by Oregon Department of Transportation officials.

That project, which will coincide with urban-renewal efforts, will evaluate traffic and other issues along the Highway 99 corridor from south Medford to Ashland.

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