Historical society discusses self-sufficient future

If the Southern Oregon Historical Society is going to survive another 60 years, supporters say it's not going to be your grandmother's organization.

"We have to change the way we're thinking," said Allison Weiss, executive director. "We're kind of paralyzed."

Weiss said SOHS wants to model itself in part after the Jackson County Genealogical Society, which depends entirely on volunteers to operate six days a week.

Ways to make the historical society financially self-sufficient will be discussed at a public meeting at 6 tonight at the U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville.

The hotel itself is a major part of the future viability of SOHS, once the area's premier caretaker of history but no longer able to open its doors. The organization is asking the county to approve selling the hotel so part of the proceeds can be used to pay off a $600,000 line of credit and provide some operating revenue.

SOHS, which has been part of Jacksonville for more than 65 years, wants to turn over the historical buildings it maintains for Jackson County to the Jacksonville Historical Society, a newly formed organization.

With a million artifacts in storage and hundreds of thousands of historical documents in its collection, SOHS wants to consolidate its main operations into the History Center, which it owns, in downtown Medford.

Hanley Farm, the society's 40-acre property in Central Point, likely will require a master plan and additional funding before it can reopen.

SOHS's money problems began when it lost all of its county support in 2007 as part of a lawsuit settlement. Lithia Motors, a tenant in the History Center, moved out in October, ending a lease that generated $150,000 annually and canceling its option to buy the building.

Weiss said the historical society's current budget, which depends on the line of credit for operations, is $360,000 annually. Before it lost county funding, the society's budget was $2 million a year.

By performing minimal maintenance on Jacksonville buildings, the society is spending about $50,000 a year rather than in excess of $100,000 previously.

Keeping Hanley Farm closed until a master plan is developed could save up to $60,000 annually.

If the historical society can pay off its loan with proceeds from the sale of the U.S. hotel, Weiss said the organization could survive on about $250,000 annually if it didn't open Hanley Farm and turned over maintenance of the Jacksonville buildings to a new historical society.

With volunteer help, the History Center could then reopen for four days a week, operating about four or five hours a day.

By leasing space in the History Center and other buildings in Jacksonville as well as working with new partners, Weiss said she is hoping to raise revenues to a more sustainable $400,000 annually.

SOHS board member Alan DeBoer provided the $600,000 line of credit to keep the organization afloat. He believes SOHS's ideas will allow it to live within its means and no longer rely on the line of credit, which will be tapped out in June or sooner.

New members on the board realize things have to change for the historical society to survive, he said.

"I think the board's morphing — as boards have to — into a different time and a different era," he said.

One idea DeBoer would like to explore is selling or leasing two buildings behind the Jacksonville Museum to the city of Jacksonville, which has been looking for a new location for its police department.

Anne Billeter, volunteer library director for the genealogical society, said her organization has had several meetings with SOHS to explain how it runs an all-volunteer organization.

Billeter said the historical society could use volunteers but thought some paid staff members would be necessary because of the sheer number of artifacts in the collection and the one-of-a-kind archives.

"We're not archival," she said. "For the most part what we have is not original material. SOHS has a huge amount of original, invaluable material. That requires a huge amount of knowledge and professional care."

The important thing to setting up an army of volunteers is having a person designated as a volunteer coordinator, she said. With about 100 volunteers, the organization has found someone to open the doors six days a week for 30 hours.

SOHS board president Terrie Martin said some of the lease options for the History Center include executive suites, a coffeehouse, a classroom for artists.

If the Commons, a proposed urban renewal project, goes forward downtown, Martin said it's possible the back of the History Center could be opened up as a secondary entrance to take advantage of the new parks and make the building more appealing for those leasing space in it.

The History Center costs about $50,000 annually in maintenance, utilities, insurance and security.

"We would like the building to pay for itself," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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