Local government, DOC still bullish on Madras


   By Tony Ahern
   Plenty of interesting information emerged from last week's Jefferson County Realtor Forum at the fairgrounds. Several knowledgeable speakers provided nuggets on land use, system development charges, the Madras Urban Renewal District and mortgage options.
   Dick Dodson, the local Coldwell Banker owner, gave a rundown of statistics on home and land sales in the past four years. An underlying issue behind the statistics: Jefferson County continues to be the third wheel in the tri-county area.
   If you like the idea of cheap real estate, it was all good news. If you would have rather heard that your community was improving in value to the point that it was surpassing its neighbors, then it was a good thing you missed the forum.
   Jefferson County continues to be the cheapest place to buy real estate in Central Oregon. The average home in Jefferson County sold for $91,000 while in Crook County the average was $104,000. Redmond's $147,500 dwarfed the Madras average. The average sold price of a home with acreage in our county is $156,900. Comparably, it's $192,500 in Crook County and $233,590 in the Redmond area.
   We won't even talk about Bend or Sisters. Suffice it to say Jefferson County lags far behind. In the tri-county area, we are indeed the third wheel in the property value world.
   It's no secret: Madras and Jefferson County struggle with livability issues: no swimming pool, no theater, the appearance of cultural clashes, limited retail choices ... we all know the story.
   Chamber director Parrish Van Wert was one of the speakers at the forum. He talked about some of the projects our public entities are undertaking that will, either directly or indirectly, improve our maligned livability.
   The city of Madras is undertaking major, revitalizing improvements at the industrial park; the hospital is in the midst of a remodeling and expansion; the school district is gearing up for the high school expansion and Buff renovation; the county is improving and beautifying the courthouse parking lot; and Metolius has its wastewater treatment plant under way.
   Our tax-supported entities are working on improving our area's livability at a time when private investment is waning. They're doing it without breaking the bank. Down the road, these efforts and projects will draw and inspire private investment.
   When the private sector is slumping, it's positive to see our tax-supported entities doing what they can, how they can, to keep our community moving forward.
   The folks behind the main impetus of private and public investment in the Madras area -- the Department of Corrections -- continue to be bullish on Madras.
   While our local economy has suffered from the no-prison blues, the Department of Corrections is continuing as if it's just a two-year hiccup. The Madras project has simply been pushed back.
   What's feeding their bullish frenzy? People are still committing crimes. In a recent letter to its local advisory committee, the DOC noted prison populations forecast are even higher than they were back in October. The message is clear: if we want to continue to house prisoners, we best find the money to build prisons.
   Since the mid-1990s, the state prison project has had the Madras area on a pendulum, going back and forth, splitting the community with its political and public relation impacts, teasing with ever-changing timeline projections. But last fall's project halting just a month away from ground-breaking pushed nearly everyone, even the prison's staunchest supporters, into the "I'll believe it when I see it" mode.
   I still believe that we will, indeed, see it.
   With prisoner counts steadily increasing, prisons will be built. In this biennium the state will be renting county beds and doing whatever it can to incarcerate. That's not a permanent solution. Eventually either our sentencing laws will have to be changed or prisons will have to be built. When we (the state government) decide we have to find a way to fund prison construction, it will happen here. The state has already made a big commitment to the Madras project, including already-paid-for infrastructure investments. Everything is in place and the DOC isn't considering other options.
   In light of the prison population numbers and projections, the DOC is asking the Legislature to begin the construction of the Lakeview facility in the upcoming biennium. The DOC's plan is to build 832 minimum security beds in Madras with completion by July 2007. The medium security facility is scheduled for completion by late 2008, and it would have 1,240 beds.
   The House Public Safety Committee was scheduled to review the DOC's budget and long range construction plan this week. We'll soon see what the next swing of the pendulum brings.
   Many people have invested in the Madras area based on the arrival of a state prison, from buying a rental property to opening a business. The entire 509-J school district approved a $15.8 million levy based on the arrival of a state prison.
   The Department of Corrections appears certain a Madras prison will be built, sometime before the decade is out. Locally, as we endure a flat economy and declining retail climate, it is hard to remain so certain about anything. We all will believe it when we see it.
   But after this biennium, starting looking again.
   While apathy too often keeps a death grip on small towns, eight men and women have committed to run for the 509-J School Board. Congratulations to them all.
   Not only did the two school board position draw an impressive number of candidates, it has drawn impressive candidates, period. We have a former school administrator, education professionals, professionals in other fields, and a group of parents that have long been active in youth programs who bring their own brands of expertise to the field. These people aren't just standing on the sidelines complaining; they're volunteering themselves to work on problems, to take blame, and do their best for our schools. Congratulations, candidates.