From hosting a beer and wine festival outside the tourist season to putting people to work installing solar panels, residents and business owners have voiced a variety of ideas for boosting Ashland's economy.

From hosting a beer and wine festival outside the tourist season to putting people to work installing solar panels, residents and business owners have voiced a variety of ideas for boosting Ashland's economy.

The city of Ashland is in the midst of creating an economic development plan.

In the past month, the city convened focus groups of people with expertise in areas that included the creative arts, development and construction, healthcare, housing, service jobs, specialty manufacturing, worker training and education, sustainability and venture capital.

During open houses on Wednesday and Thursday, residents had their chance to voice ideas and comment on the work that's been done so far to create an economic development plan.

Dana Bussell, a member of the Ashland Public Arts Commission, said Ashland has an image of being a town that is a good place for the arts, but it's too expensive for most artists to live here.

"It's not easy to live here and to produce work here," she said.

Actors, dancers, singers and film buffs are often members of nonprofit groups like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Nonprofits can win economic and cultural development grants handed out each year by the city. Gallery owners have their own nonprofit association.

But Bussell said that few visual artists are members of nonprofit groups, and therefore can't get access to the city grants. She said changing the grant criteria could help artists.

Bussell said artists who do live in Ashland often have to travel to surrounding communities to buy art supplies, since there are few places to buy supplies in town.

Identifying those types of gaps in supplies and services available here is one important component of creating the economic development plan, said city of Ashland Strategic Planning Project Manager Adam Hanks, the city staff person assigned to help craft the plan.

"We need to find the niches the community can fill so we're not importing services and materials," he said.

One suggestion was to create a "connectory" — an inventory of local companies that buy and sell different products and services. Businesses can use a connectory to buy from each other, rather than sending their money out of the area.

Business Oregon, the state's economic development agency, has created the Northwest Connectory. A business can put in a search term, such as "business cards," and see a list of Oregon providers of the cards. The business can also narrow the search to a specific county or zip code to find a local supplier.

Some counties are working to create their own connectories.

Hanks said an entrepreneur who wants to start a new business could use a connectory to identify gaps.

"From the entrepreneurial side, the entrepreneur is looking at it and saying, 'Ooh. That's not here. That's something I could provide,'" Hanks said.

During the focus groups and open houses, one issue that emerged is that businesses, government agencies, nonprofit groups and organizations like the Ashland Chamber of Commerce are already doing many of the things that have been suggested, Hanks said.

For example, a bookkeeper said she had noticed that many of her clients could benefit from additional business training. The Ashland Chamber of Commerce and the Medford-based Small Business Development Center are among the groups that offer such training, Hanks said.

Helping people make connections to existing services, or augmenting those services, could be beneficial, he said.

Ashland also may need to find a way to balance what could be competing values.

Ashland Planning Commissioner and Ashland City Councilor-elect Michael Morris said that in his conversations with business owners, they have voiced concerns about Ashland's difficult planning process. At the same time, they value the quality of life created, in part, by some of Ashland's protective regulations.

Resident Steve Ryan said Ashland should be cautious about luring new businesses to town with incentives and subsidies that would further burden taxpayers. He said businesses that are not naturally suited to Ashland could pull up stakes once the incentives expire.

"If I'm a footloose and mobile company, history shows that I will up and move," Ryan said.

For more information on the city of Ashland's economic development planning, and to fill out a questionnaire on the topic, visit www.ashland.or.us/econdev.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.