Viewpoint: Talent prepares next step on housing, small business, fire prevention

Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood explained Talent’s urban renewal plan at an event at Malmgren Garage, which is being restored with technical assistance from the Talent Urban Renewal Agency. Matt Witt Photography
June 27, 2022

Council meets Wednesday to consider urban renewal proposal

By Matt Witt

Affordable housing, getting small businesses back on their feet after the Almeda fire, and fire prevention and emergency preparedness are the public’s three top priorities for Talent’s urban renewal plan, according to a survey recently conducted by the Talent Urban Renewal Agency (TURA).

Talent’s mayor and city councilors, who also serve as the TURA board, are meeting Wednesday, June 29, to consider an urban renewal proposal based on those priorities after months of public input. If approved, that will trigger a period for additional comment from the public and other agencies before the board adopts a final plan later this summer.

Talent’s elected leaders are considering urban renewal as one tool for responding to the devastation caused by the fire nearly two years ago.

One-third of Talent’s housing was destroyed, exacerbating an affordable housing crisis that existed even before the fire.

Of the 690 residential structures and 64 commercial buildings that were destroyed or suffered major damage, only 98 have been rebuilt, and permits have been obtained for only another 177, according to figures provided by the city as of June 17.

Rebuilding of affordable housing has been particularly slow. At least 350 school children have still been unable to return to the community, according to State Representative Pam Marsh. Many households have been living in temporary arrangements that will end soon, without affordable alternatives on the horizon. Rents and home prices have soared, pricing out many long-time residents.

State law authorizes a city to adopt an urban renewal district for up to 30 years when “an area is in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation as a result of a flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, storm or other catastrophe.”

Once a city’s elected leaders adopt an urban renewal plan, the city is able to borrow money to invest in improvements in a designated zone – in this case, part of the area covered by Talent’s burn scar. Those improvements result in increased tax revenue from that zone (without increasing tax rates), and that increase is used to repay the loan.

Elaine Howard, a consultant who has helped more than 50 local communities in Oregon with urban renewal plans, reported at a recent public meeting that Talent’s plan could be used 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, and adopt other innovative strategies.

Harry Weiss, the director of Medford’s Urban Renewal Agency, told the TURA board that Medford is using urban renewal funds for affordable housing, among other purposes. He also said that having an urban renewal program helps a city get additional funding from the state or other sources. Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Central Point also have urban renewal plans in place.

Talent lost 60 percent of its businesses to the fire, and Howard said urban renewal could help local small businesses with startup and growth, shared space, workforce training, and incentives for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Addressing Talent residents’ third priority, urban renewal funds could be used to promote fire prevention — potentially saving lives and money — and to make it more likely that residents would know where to go in case of another emergency.

Talent residents were reminded during the Almeda fire of the importance of fire prevention and readiness when water lines failed so that, while firefighters were on hand, they did not have the necessary water to work with.

A June 23 letter to the TURA board from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 notes that there are a “significant number” of homes and commercial buildings “without built-in fire protection.”

Some areas with highly flammable vegetation of the type that fueled the Almeda fire still have not been cleared, and trees that would reduce fire risk by lowering heat levels still need to be replanted.

Talent’s elected leaders have repeatedly asked the fire district to provide “specific suggestions on projects or programs” to take fire prevention and resilience into account in the urban renewal plan.

But the fire district’s June 23 letter calls on TURA to drop the urban renewal plan entirely. While in the long run the improvements in the burn scar made possible by urban renewal will mean increased property tax revenue for all agencies like the fire district, in the short run they will not receive increased revenue from that small zone until the urban renewal loan is paid off.

Total fire district revenue will still approximately triple over the 30 years that the urban renewal plan is in operation, but the increase will be about half a percent less in the first year than it would be without urban renewal, according to current estimates, and would average 4 to 5 percent less over the 30-year-period.

The part of the burn scar that would be designated as an urban renewal zone is only 1/20 of the total area covered by the fire district. During the 30 years, the fire district will continue to benefit from reassessed values due to post-fire rebuilding or major improvements in the other 95% of its territory, in addition to the 3% annual increase it has received in the past.

The fire district’s letter ignores the potential savings for the district and for local residents from fire prevention and resilience measures that urban renewal can support.

It also fails to answer why the fire district specifically takes the ongoing Phoenix urban renewal plan into account in its current budget but now opposes use of the same disaster recovery tool by Talent.

The district’s letter also leads the public to believe that urban renewal jeopardizes recovery from the Almeda fire’s damage to the Talent and Phoenix fire stations –

without acknowledging that the state already appropriated funds to rebuild that capacity.

Even before the recent TURA survey about residents’ priorities, the people of Talent provided a mandate in the 2020 election when councilors were elected by a 2-1 majority on a platform of “Uniting to Restore Our Community.” That platform prioritized bringing all Talent families home after the fire, affordable housing, helping reestablish small businesses, maintaining the town’s diversity, and fostering unity and teamwork.

Talent’s elected leaders are doing their best to help carry out that mandate, with urban renewal as one essential way to raise the necessary funds without raising tax rates. Nearly two years after the fire, other agencies need to do the same.

Matt Witt is a writer and photographer in Talent.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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