Jacksonville makes pitch to gain historic properties

Jacksonville has asked Jackson County to turn over ownership of four historic properties in town.

Mayor Jim Lewis made the request after the county's budget committee on Wednesday denied the Southern Oregon Historical Society's bid for $750,000 over the next two years. In addition to operating expenses, the money was to help take care of the U.S. Hotel, Beekman House, Beekman Bank and Catholic Rectory.

In a letter to county commissioners Thursday, Jacksonville Mayor James Lewis said the city has "a strong and lasting interest in protecting those assets for posterity" and wants to "relieve the county of the burden of any further maintenance responsibilities."

Lewis asked the county to give the properties to the city, saying that by owning and running the historic buildings, "the city can optimize its historic values and economic vitality."

The Jackson County Budget Committee denied SOHS's request on Wednesday and suggested taking back the buildings — leased to the society for $1 a year — and leasing them for nonhistoric purposes or selling them outright if SOHS can't maintain them.

Committee members chastised the society for not being self-sufficient and for using a majority of its resources on Jacksonville instead of spreading them countywide.

SOHS and other historical societies are hoping for a stable source of funding with a countywide heritage district set to go before voters in November 2008. The district would levy a property tax of 7 cents per $1,000 in assessed valuation, or less than $12 for a house assessed at $167,000 (the county average). It would raise $1 million a year.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said he will present Jacksonville's offer to the commissioners. It will be addressed in executive (closed) session because it is a real estate matter, Jordan said. Real estate transactions are exempted from Oregon public meetings laws because disclosure could affect market value. Commissioners could not be reached for comment Friday.

SOHS Executive Director John Enders welcomed the Jacksonville offer, noting that "whoever owns them has to pay to maintain them. They are public buildings, belonging to the taxpayers of Jackson County, and it's inappropriate and unfair to force a private, nonprofit organization to raise private money to maintain public buildings."

Enders prepared a list of expenditures for the budget committee but was not allowed to speak during the meeting. He said it takes an estimated $250,000 per year to maintain, heat, conserve and minimally restore the four historic structures in Jacksonville.

Enders said Friday that SOHS is committed to the buildings and will "have to look at its options" at a meeting of its board.

Lewis said he hopes the county isn't planning on generating revenue by leasing or selling the properties, as "they mean a lot to the people of this county, state and even the nation," and there are many possible funding sources, including the State Historic Preservation Office.

"It's improper to convert things like this to commercial uses unless you have to and we don't have that driving need," said Lewis.

Ashland historian George Kramer, chairman of the Oregon Heritage Commission, said the county has "evidenced very little stewardship of historic properties and if SOHS is not going to be compensated, then I'm tickled to see the city of Jacksonville step forward and do it."

Lewis said transfer of the properties between two governmental agencies, under state law, would be "relatively easy." The law bars transfer of property to a nonprofit agency.

Lewis said money from the heritage district, if passed, could be used to maintain the buildings.

Lewis asked for talks with the county soon, "so that we can eliminate the uncertainties that the present situation creates." He also reminded commissioners of his request earlier this year to transfer the county-owned Britt Gardens to the city.

Voters in 1948 approved a property tax levy of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the preservation of history, but with passage of state ballot Measure 50 in 1997, such levies were pooled into county coffers. SOHS then sued the county and got its levy for three years, ending last April, as part of a settlement.

Kramer said the Beekman House and Beekman Bank were donated by heirs to the University of Oregon, which gave them to the county in the 1950s for the purpose of preservation. The county acquired the U.S. Hotel for back taxes during the Depression.

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

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