Heritage district signature drive falls short for May 2010 vote

Supporters of a countywide heritage district failed to meet Friday's deadline for collecting enough signatures to force a May 2010 vote. That leaves the history supporters with the option of starting over on the arduous process or hoping for a new face — and a positive vote — on the Jackson Board of Commissioners to put it on the ballot.

Backers said the large number of signatures required by law — 4 percent of the number who last voted for governor or 16,632 — made it a tough task for the 240 mostly older signature-gathering volunteers.

They collected 9,687 signatures, said campaign chairman Tam Moore, who despite the shortfall called it an "awesome" accomplishment.

"That number is huge," said Southern Oregon Historical Society interim executive director Terrie Martin. "It means we were successful in contacting 10,000 people and that there's a lot of community support. It's a shame the commissioners didn't just put it on the ballot."

The proposed countywide measure would have levied 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value or about $12 a year for a home assessed at $167,000, which is about the county average. The measure would have supported SOHS and other smaller historical societies in the county.

Martin added that the financially embattled SOHS "wasn't counting on it for its survival. We knew it was a gamble. We did our best and gave it a good shot."

Moore said any future strategies could be discussed by the Jackson County Heritage Association at an Oct. 9 meeting or by SOHS members at its Wednesday meeting. He said it also could be placed on the ballot by a 2-1 vote of county commissioners if Democrat Jim Olney defeats incumbent C.W. Smith in November. Olney has voiced public support for referring a measure to voters, while Smith has said proponents should show they have support by gathering signatures.

Under state law, measures creating new tax districts can go only on primary or general election ballots, which come on even-numbered years. Supporters originally hoped to place a measure on this November's ballot, but redirected the effort toward 2010 when signature gathering stalled. If they attempt another initiative, they would have to start from scratch in gathering signatures.

Jackson County voters in 1948 approved a historical levy, but a 1997 ballot measure merged it with the county general fund. Over the next decade, commissioners eliminated funding for SOHS and the other smaller historical societies.

SOHS officials say the organization will move forward as a nonprofit without a tax base, stepping up local fundraising and helped by a $600,000 line of credit from former Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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