A $22 million question will face Medford officials this Thursday, and their answer could have a major impact on one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
The Medford Urban Renewal Agency board, made up of city councilors, earlier this year signaled it wants to invest much of $22 million from extending MURA into the Beatty-Manzanita neighborhood, otherwise known as Liberty Park, just north of downtown and roughly bordered by Central and Riverside.
But at the MURA board meeting at 5:45 p.m. Thursday, the question will be whether to focus the money entirely on just the Liberty Park neighborhood or to broaden the scope to include the rest of the urban renewal district that includes the downtown and areas to the south.
The direction the board sets will guide an advisory committee. The city is working with Ellen Howard Consulting LLC of Portland to eventually compile a list of projects. The firm will receive up to $50,000 for the work.
Councilor Kay Brooks, a resident of the Liberty Park neighborhood and a MURA board member, worries that a project list that doesn't focus on Beatty-Manzanita could end up diverting money to other parts of town.
"I don’t want MURA to get nickeled and dimed by others' pet projects," Brooks said. "It going to try hard to make sure that MURA money isn’t misspent as it has been historically."
Her blighted neighborhood was part of the justification for the creation of MURA 30 years ago, but the neighborhood ultimately received only a small neighborhood park out of the effort, a "pittance park," as Brooks refers to it.
The neighborhood is called Beatty-Manzanita after the two streets that bisect it. It's also called Liberty Park because of the never-realized dream of getting a substantial park and other improvements.
Brooks said she has a list of projects for her neighborhood, including trying to get rid of a motel that she said attracts those involved in drugs and prostitution.
"It's Grand Central Station for human trafficking," Brooks said.
She said she envisions mixed-income housing units and creating greater connectivity between her neighborhood and the rest of the city, including providing better access to shopping areas to the north.
The sewer system in the neighborhood is considered one of the worst in the city and needs upgrades, Brooks said.
The improvements to the neighborhood would finally follow through with the goals of MURA 30 years ago, to fight blight in Liberty Park, she said.
"I think we would be remiss to propose anything outside of what we have promised," she said.
Councilor Kevin Stine, president of the MURA board, said he can understand the concern about designating money for other projects outside Liberty Park.
"Obviously it is something to consider," he said.
But, he thinks that if projects get stalled in Liberty Park or can't be built for a variety of reasons, the MURA board needs to have a list of alternative projects it can turn to, including a seismic retrofit program for many downtown buildings.
"I think personally the MURA board should give options to a future MURA board," he said.
Many of the projects being discussed for Liberty Park have been very general in scope, and Stine said he hopes the consulting firm can come up with a more concrete list along with cost estimates.
One project MURA had been looking at was buying the former Lithia Honda dealership on Central Avenue.
The building was demolished recently after the nonprofit Options for Southern Oregon bought it July 3 for $1.45 million.
Options, a mental-health treatment provider based in Grants Pass, plans to build a 30,800-square-foot office and treatment center on the 2.5-acre site, which has been empty for more than two years.
But Brooks said she doesn't think a psychiatric facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood is the best use of that space.
"That doesn't bode well," she said.
MURA spent $67 million over the past 30 years, with most of the money going to other projects through the center of town.
Over the past year, councilors, acting as the MURA board, have discussed proposals for the Liberty Park neighborhood, including spending up to $5 million to buy properties for three- and four-story apartment complexes.
An additional $3 million could be set aside to improve Manzanita and Edwards streets. Another $3 million could be used for upgrading infrastructure and incentives for developers, specifically providing relief from development fees.