May 23, 2024

Viewpoint: Talent plan focuses on fire preparation, housing and small businesses

Talent lost 60% of its small businesses in the Almeda Fire, including the A-One Of A Kind estate outlet. An urban renewal plan could help bring it back. Matt Witt Photography
April 18, 2022

Talent Urban Renewal plan will be discussed at virtual open house April 27

By Matt Witt

Like many residents of Talent, Phoenix, and Ashland, I had to evacuate on September 8, 2020, when the Almeda fire came close to my house.

By chance, the wind directed the flames around my neighborhood and, after a week without water or electricity, I was able to return home.

Many of my friends were not so lucky.

One — a woman who for years had volunteered countless hours for community projects — told me after several months, “There’s no way I’ll ever be able to come back to live in Talent again. It’s just not affordable.”

Another family I know whose trailer burned with all their worldly possessions still wakes up every day not knowing where they will be able to afford to live once temporary transitional housing is no longer available.

It’s with that background that I first heard about the proposed Talent Urban Renewal plan that will be the subject of a virtual open house for Talent residents on April 27.

When I hear the term “urban renewal,” I think of programs in many cities across the country that have used tax dollars to subsidize profit-making developers and speed up gentrification. These programs to address “blight” consistently draw enthusiastic support from developers’ political allies and their boosters in local media. But in many places, urban renewal has contributed to existing residents being priced out of the housing market, which is why many people derisively call these programs “urban removal.”

As I looked into Talent’s plan, I learned that Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood and the city council have a different vision for urban renewal. They make up the board of the Talent Urban Renewal Agency (TURA), and their plan focuses on making Talent more affordable for its residents, bringing back small businesses after the Almeda Fire, and making the community better prepared to prevent and withstand future fires.

Urban Renewal plans have been used by more than 75 cities in Oregon because they generate substantial funds without raising taxes. Once a plan Is adopted, the city is able to borrow money to invest in improvements in a designated zone — in this case, the area covered by Talent’s burn scar. Those improvements result in increased tax revenue from that zone — and that increase is used to repay the loan.

Mike Oxendine, who is Chair of the Talent Urban Forestry Committee and used to be Ashland Parks and Recreation Superintendent, explained that urban renewal funds will be essential to address future fire risks.

He saw first hand that community infrastructure failed during the Almeda fire as the lines that were supposed to bring water to Talent were quickly destroyed.

“Firefighters and their equipment were on the scene, but that alone was not nearly enough,” Oxendine said. “The Talent Urban Renewal plan will help restore our infrastructure and our buildings in ways that are more fire resistant — filling a need that is not part of the mission or budget of the fire district. That will both save lives and save money for our community.”

The houses, apartments, or trailers of people I know were just part of the one-third of Talent’s housing that was destroyed in the Almeda fire. Like my friends, many fire survivor households have not been able to return to the community because of the lack of affordable housing, and many current residents wonder if they will have to leave as rents and sale prices have soared.

The Talent Urban Renewal plan says it will generate funding to develop new housing stock for lower-income households, acquire land for nonprofit housing development, develop a purchase program to assist families who otherwise couldn’t afford it, promote energy efficiency and renewable energy, and adopt other innovative strategies.

Similarly, after Talent lost 60 percent of its small businesses, the urban renewal plan is designed to help bring some of them back by helping with startup and growth, providing support for workforce training, and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion in business assistance.

Urban renewal is not new to Talent. A previous Talent Urban Renewal plan, adopted in 1991, turned Talent Avenue and Main Street from dirt paths to city streets and brought lighting, small businesses, and new neighborhoods. It even helped the Camelot Theater move to its more modern facility. And it brought 53 fire survivor households back to emergency transitional housing at the Gateway site on Highway 99.

Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, and Jacksonville also have urban renewal plans. In fact, Phoenix was just in the news celebrating new initiatives under its plan.

In the long run, other taxing districts like fire districts, the library district, RVTD, and Jackson County benefit from all of these cities’ urban renewal plans because improvements in the affected zones result in more tax revenue than would otherwise be generated.

In the short run, however, the rate of growth in revenue for those other districts is reduced a small amount by each city’s urban renewal plan as increased revenue from the designated zone is temporarily earmarked to pay back the urban renewal loans.

According to official projections provided at publicly attended city council meetings and published on the Talent Urban Renewal Agency website, the average temporary impact on revenue growth for Jackson County, the library district, and RVTD would be less than half of one percent. The Phoenix-Talent School District and Rogue Community College would not be affected because of state funding formulas.

The impact on the rate of growth in revenue for Fire District 5 would be half of one percent in the first year, eventually rising to a 30-year average of 4.4% by 2040. This could be more than made up for, however, by the plan’s ability to address cost-effective prevention and resilience measures.

The fire district claimed in the Mail Tribune on Feb. 27 that this small temporary reduction in its rate of revenue growth will result in closing one of its three fire stations and “longer response times for fire and medical emergencies.” When I asked the fire district what that seemingly exaggerated claim was based on, they declined to send me figures or documentation and said they were not “able to speak very specifically to the TURA proposal.”

They also declined to answer my question about whether they were prepared to work with the Talent Urban Renewal plan to ensure that rebuilding is done in a way that promotes fire prevention and resistance.

As someone equally concerned about housing affordability and fire preparation, I don’t want to see scare tactics and political game playing. Our community needs the kind of action and teamwork proposed under the Talent Urban Renewal plan, and the sooner the better.

It’s time for the fire district, the county, and all other agencies to sit down with Talent’s leaders and ask, “How can we help?”

Matt Witt is a writer and photographer in Talent.

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Bert Etling

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