A ray of hope for history

Jackson County commissioners took a big step last week that shows they understand the value of history to this valley and recognize what a loss it would be if the Southern Oregon Historical Society were forced to close its doors. The commissioners should continue that effort until SOHS is back on solid ground.

The commissioners Thursday approved a deal that would put the U.S. Hotel building in Jacksonville up for sale. The historic structure is estimated to be worth about $2 million, and several potential buyers have expressed interest.

When the sale is complete, the county will give $1 million of the proceeds to the historical society. That would allow SOHS to pay off a $600,000 loan against the History Center, the former JC Penney building in downtown Medford, with enough left over to support the organization for about two years.

This is welcome news for SOHS, which shut down most of its operations last fall in an effort to stay afloat. But it is not, by itself, a long-term solution that will keep the organization functioning in perpetuity.

That will require some kind of steady income stream beyond the admission fees the society charges the public to visit museums and historic properties.

SOHS had such an income stream for nearly half a century, thanks to a history levy local voters approved in 1948. When voters passed Ballot Measures 47 and 50, language in those measures consolidated all special levies into the county's tax base. The society sued the county to try to force the commissioners to continue funding SOHS, but lost that battle, eventually agreeing to a settlement under which the county provided three years of funding that ended in 2007.

Meanwhile, SOHS continued to be responsible for maintaining several historic properties owned by the county without the necessary resources. The lack of funding also threatened the society's collection of a million artifacts and hundreds of thousands of documents and photographs.

SOHS pulled out of Jacksonville, consolidating its operations into the History Center. A group of Jacksonville residents is forming a new organization that could take over maintenance and operation of several properties there, including the museum housed in the historic courthouse and the adjacent Children's Museum.

The U.S. Hotel deal could be repeated by selling other county-owned properties and splitting the proceeds between the county and SOHS. If enough money could be generated to build an endowment fund for SOHS, that could offer the organization the long-term stability it needs.

Commissioner Jack Walker said last week that "The county should just walk out of this thing. It's not the county's responsibility anymore."

But before the county can "walk out," it does have a responsibility to leave the historical society as a functioning entity benefiting county residents and the local tourism economy. The U.S. Hotel deal is a start toward that goal, but only a start.

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