Thursday, January 28, 2010
Here in Jackson County we once boasted the largest local historical society west of the Mississippi River. Fifty years ago visionary County leaders petitioned the Oregon Legislature to change state law and create the opportunity for a local Historical Levy. They did, and in 1948 the voters passed the Jackson County Historical Levy, designated .25 per thousand dollars of assessed value to support the restoration of the old Jacksonville Courthouse for use as a county museum. The Southern Oregon Historical Society was formed to run that facility, along with others the County would eventually own in Jacksonville through generous donation from Robbie Collins, the Beekman Family, Pacific Power, and the University of Oregon. The US Hotel and other facilities came to the County during the Great Depression, for failure to pay their taxes and in Jacksonville's sorry economy before it discovered the value of history the County saw no point in selling them.
Fast forward and Jacksonville's special qualities were recognized as an NHL in 1966. SOHS grew into a fine, professional institution with more than 50 employees, conserving more than a million artifacts, providing training and advice to the bevy of local historical societies their success spawned throughout Jackson County (we have twelve). SOHS events played an important role in tourism, and brought considerable value to the region. So generous had Jackson County voters been that the Society never had to collect the full .25 cents. Just a dime per thousand brought them well over $1 million annually.
Enter politics, in the very specific name of Jack Walker, a long time County Commissioner who despite being a Jackson County native has a near innate distaste for everything SOHS stands for. Buoyed by his own opinions, Jack started to nibble away at SOHS funding, first diverting 25% of it toward the remaining historical societies and the County's own projects. Later, with a convenient interpretation of Oregon's tax cutting ballot measures, Jack and the County took the position that the Historical Levy no longer existed as a dedicated fund. Now the full .25 cents could be diverted to the County's general fund and, of course, they didn't hesitate to collect the entire quarter the levy was entitled too. That levy still yields the Jackson County general fund NINE MILLION annually. Jack uses it to pay for things he values more than heritage or libraries.
Last night SOHS sponsored a public meeting to discuss its future. Anybody that follows SOHS locally already knows that they are in dire straits. Poor management in the past, coupled with lack of gumption or out and out poor decisions by previous leadership put the organization in such a deep hole that even their current, dedicated, board is hard pressed to find a solution. This isn't helped by the fact that Jackson County, lead by Jack Walker, has basically behaved like a school yard bully picking on the nerdy kid. In the words of a rare letter to the editor on this topic "The near dereliction of duty demonstrated by the commissioners is an outrage and should not be tolerated by citizens of southern Oregon." Well said, but not said nearly enough.
At this writing, SOHS is scared silent and is seeking to leave all of its responsibilities for Jacksonville properties to others. They are working with the "Jacksonville Historical Society", a new group that hopes to take over the Courthouse, Beekman Bank, Beekman House, Children's Museum and Catholic Rectory. The silent part comes from the fact that SOHS is negotiating with the County in the hopes they will sell the US Hotel to a private investor and give SOHS some of the proceeds to pay off debt and provide operating funds while the society gets its sea legs under a new, streamlined, business model. I wish them luck. They are going to need it. I think they are deluded to trust Jack Walker to do the right thing in regards to SOHS. He never has. Bullies, when they have their victim on the ropes, are fairly unlikely to show them any mercy. It's a sorry state of affairs. The county will keep the lions share of any money they get from selling these historic properties if there is any way they can finagle it.
And meanwhile Jack and the County not only collect RENT on the US Hotel (which they don't share with SOHS which must maintain the building under the terms of the lease) but they continue to blithely collect nine million dollars from taxpayers every year.