Southern Oregon Historical Society to leave Jacksonville

The financially strapped Southern Oregon Historical Society may pull out of Jacksonville and leave the care of historic landmarks to another organization so it can continue to safeguard Jackson County's history and the million artifacts in its collection.

SOHS has proposed to the county that it sell landmarks such as the U.S. Hotel and the Catholic Rectory and lease out other buildings, including the Jacksonville Museum that once was the county courthouse.

If the proposal is approved by the county, a percentage of the proceeds from the property sales could pay off the historical society's debt, and the lease of other buildings could help pay for a newly formed Jacksonville Historical Society.

SOHS closed down most of its operations last year to allow time for reorganization under a new executive director.

Terrie Martin, SOHS board president, said her organization had to make difficult choices to ensure its survival.

"We have to decide what's important," Martin said. "And what's important is our collection."

SOHS hopes to consolidate its operations in the History Center, a 27,000-square-foot building it owns at Sixth Street and Central Avenue in Medford, and concentrate its efforts on preserving and displaying artifacts and documents from its vast collection.

It would continue to own and run Hanley Farm in Central Point and would continue to lease a building in White City that contains about 1 million artifacts. The society also cares for hundreds of thousands of historical documents and photographs.

Executive Director Allison Weiss said there have been discussions about selling the U.S. Bank and the Catholic Rectory. The Beekman Bank also could be put up for sale, but Weiss said the historical society would like more involvement from the community before that idea is seriously considered.

The historical society leases Jacksonville buildings such as the history museum and children's museum from the county for $1 a year and would likely sub-lease them to a proposed Jacksonville historical society for the same cost, if approved by the county. The new historical society would take over the maintenance costs.

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.

When Weiss took over leadership of SOHS last July, she was looking at an annual budget of $750,000. Now it is $360,000, with two full-time people and a handful of part-time workers.

In its heyday, the historical society received more than $2 million annually through a voter-approved levy and had about 50 employees.

Weiss said the historical society is on life support.

"We could be out of money any month," she said. "It is a very desperate situation."

If the county agrees to sell off properties and a new historical society takes over management of the other buildings, SOHS would save about $100,000 annually in maintenance and utility costs.

The historical society is hoping to receive a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the U.S. Hotel to help pay off a $600,000 loan.

If the historical society, which met with county officials Friday, gets the support of the county for its proposals, it plans to reopen its library to the public on May 4 using volunteers.

To cut costs in the future, Weiss said SOHS will foster partnerships with local organizations such as genealogical societies and share staff with smaller historical societies.

Hanley Farm is not sustainable at present, Weiss said. SOHS may rent out space for farmers, create a partnership with the local extension service and host a community garden for Central Point.

Weiss wants to lease out space in the History Center as well to help raise additional revenue.

She said she has heard all the stories and complaints about the bad blood between the county and the historical society, but her board of directors has decided that the only solution is to forget about those past grievances.

"What can we do?" she said. "It is history. I can't dwell on what we did in the past. We've got to move forward."

Taking care of six buildings in Jacksonville is just too much of a burden, she said.

"We have to get out of the property management business," she said.

Selling off historical buildings doesn't mean they would lose their character. Deed restrictions and their historical designation would help preserve their significance for Jacksonville, she said.

An area in the upstairs of the museum has been cleared out and could be used as a community meeting room if the county sells the U.S. Hotel, where the upstairs ballroom served as a meeting space.

All of SOHS's proposals hinge on county approval.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said he has been working with SOHS officials for several months. He said he is hopeful that a proposal will be forthcoming from SOHS that could be presented to the Board of Commissioners.

Both county and historical society officials say there are no prospective buyers for the U.S. Hotel or other properties, though there has been some interest expressed about the hotel over the years.

If a building were to be sold, it would have to go through a complicated process where the property is declared as surplus, then an auction would be held and if there were no serious offers, it would be put up for sale.

George Kramer, a historic preservation consultant in Ashland, sharply criticized what he sees as strong-arm tactics on the part of Jackson County against a very weakened historical society.

"I don't blame SOHS," he said. "They have a gun to their head and they are trying to save some money. SOHS is on death's door and looking for money any way they can get it."

Kramer said Commissioner Jack Walker forced the historical society to divert funds to repair the roof on the county courthouse, a move that started the friction between the county and SOHS.

"I think the county has played hardball because Jack Walker got so pissed off about 20 years ago," he said.

When voters approved Measure 50 in 1997, a levy that provided $2 million annually to the historical society was consolidated into the county's general fund. Kramer said the county doesn't divert a dime to the historical society.

"The county is the one that has put SOHS in that position, and the county is the one that has taken advantage of that," Kramer said. "SOHS is to the point where it is basically selling a kidney to survive."

What the county forgets is that through the work of the historical society and the city of Jacksonville, buildings such as the U.S. Hotel were preserved years ago and ended up being deeded to the county, he said.

"Don't tell me the county has any claim to anything," Kramer said. "I hold Jackson County entirely responsible for this situation."

Kramer said he is not necessarily opposed to selling a building like the U.S. Hotel, but he thinks the proceeds should go entirely to the historical society and not be shared with the county.

Walker said he didn't want to respond to any personal attacks from Kramer, but did say the historical society appears to be headed in the right direction.

"I am excited about some of the different ideas that are being explored," he said.

April Sevcik, SOHS board member, said the time for rehashing what happened in the past is over if the historical society hopes to move forward.

She said nonprofit organizations everywhere are facing difficult economic times and the historical society wants to work with everyone to find a solution.

"We have tried to create a working relationship with the county," she said. "What was, was, and what isn't, isn't."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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