Historical society will stay afloat, members say

Buoyed by a $600,000 loan from former Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer, Southern Oregon Historical Society members expressed confidence Saturday that they can stay afloat for the next two years — until a public vote on creating Heritage Districts that would be supported by property taxes.

The dollar transfusion gives the financially struggling organization — totally cut off from county funding in recent years — the time and stability to write a business plan, spread the message about its mission and conduct a search for a new executive director, said SOHS Board of Trustees president Bruce Budmayr.

The board let Budmayr continue as president so that incoming board president Terrie Claflin Martin, now serving as interim SOHS executive director, would not have to hold both jobs. The organization has been without an official head since March, when, in a cost-cutting move, John Enders left the post.

Leading a chorus of "yes we can!" lifted from the Obama presidential campaign, Tam Moore of the Heritage District campaign Saturday told the board and other supporters that the campaign had only about a third of the 20,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot. The group must submit its signatures by Sept. 19 to get on the November ballot. Otherwise, they'll have to wait for the May ballot next year.

Budmayr cautioned the crowd at an outdoor pie-and-ice cream social at historic Hanley Farm that "we can never assume it's going to pass," and that SOHS and its supporters must step up budget-slashing measures and work for self-sufficiency with its programs, historic properties and grants.

Shouting from the back of the audience, SOHS Foundation board member Alice Mullaly of Central Point said, "This society is not going to go away!"

SOHS trustee and treasurer Dick Thierolf said the loan would "tide us over a two-year period so we can think about things that haven't been thought through in the past "¦ We're in a whole different world in terms of funding and have to start from scratch in many ways."

Thierolf added that it's been hard on staff and volunteers. "I think personally that we've hit the bottom and are on our way uphill from here," he said. "If you hang with us, you will see positive steps, so we don't ever have to go through what we've been through."

Originally funded in the mid-20th century by a voter-approved property tax levy that gave it $2 million a year, SOHS lost 70 percent of that funding in a property tax limitation vote in 1997, getting its final county support, after a bitter lawsuit, in early 2007.

The proposed Heritage District ballot measure would levy 7 cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation to fund 14 historical districts in the county.

The SOHS has a near-unique challenge among historical societies in trying to come up with at least $500,000 a year to run eight properties, as well as its museum and research library, said Claflin Martin — and has responded to the financial meltdown by cutting its staff of 44 to 10 full-time employees.

In trying to cope with its $1,500 monthly phone bill, SOHS even hired technicians to track down five dead lines for which is was being charged $40 a month each, she said. The bill is now down to $800.

Moore urged volunteer sign-ups to gather signatures at upcoming summer events, including the Ashland Fourth of July and the Rogue River Rooster Crow, as well as door-to-door canvassing.

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

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