History has a near-death experience

Funding squeezes in Oregon put much of the history of Jacksonville behind closed doors. It could happen in King County next.
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The Southern Oregon Historical Society, in Jacksonville's 1883 courthouse

Funding squeezes in Oregon put much of the history of Jacksonville behind closed doors. It could happen in King County next.

On July 5, 2009, in Jacksonville (population 2,200), located in the southwest part of Oregon, Allison Weiss sat at her desk for the first time as the new executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society. After a leaderless 16 months, the 63-year-old organization finally had a professional at the helm; the not-for-profit'ꀙs board of directors had to reach all the way to Pennsylvania to find someone willing to tackle SOHS'ꀙ financial and organizational crisis.

Two months later, Weiss was shutting most of the organization down for at least six months, perhaps permanently. SOHS'ꀙs showcase Jacksonville Museum of Southern Oregon History, in the county'ꀙs original 1883 courthouse, closed its doors. Five more historic structures operated by the society in Jacksonville'ꀙs National Historic District, which covers the entire town, also closed. Two other SOHS properties — a children'ꀙs museum and a farm that plows its fields with draft horses — slashed their hours. 'ꀜI thought I would have a year to sort out the problems,'ꀝ Weiss says. 'ꀜBut we couldn'ꀙt wait any longer to stop operations.'ꀝ

The shutdown was the climax of a ten-year journey; the way points were a new state law, a failed local citizens initiative, a county budget squeeze, and finally, the loss over the summer of a major tenant (an auto dealership caught in the Great Recession) leasing space in the SOHS research library building. Without that monthly revenue, SOHS had to lay off four of its six paid staff or risk putting its $600,000 annual operating budget in the red.

But the most important factor driving the crisis was a decision by Jackson County commissioners in 2007 to halt a half-century-long tradition of funding the society'ꀙs operations. As a result, the 200,000 residents of Jackson County, including the cities of Medford and Ashland, have lost nearly all access to SOHS'ꀙs collection of 1 million artifacts and 800,000 documents and photos. Not even professional researchers can view the collections. In other words, local people, not to mention all Oregonians, were barred from a broad swath of their state and local history.

The SOHS episode illustrates the central importance of local funding for heritage activities, and the vulnerability of cultural organizations when elected officials lose faith in not-for-profits entrusted with history'ꀙs care. The episode also illustrates the importance of history to many small Northwest communities. 'ꀜHistory is what brings people to Jacksonville,'ꀝ says chamber of commerce president James Ward.

One particular blow: the historic SOHS-operated US Hotel downtown will no longer host monthly weddings and the hundreds of guests who buy meals at the town'ꀙs restaurants, pick up tsotchkes at the gift shops, and take narrated rides on the chamber-run trolley. 'ꀜ[SOHS'ꀙs] decision has had a tremendous impact,'ꀝ laments Ward. Jacksonville city council members are worried enough that they volunteered to mow the lawn and rake leaves in front of the Jacksonville Museum.

SOHS once had the dream of all cultural organizations: a reliable, dedicated source of income. In 1948, Jackson County voters approved a property tax of $.25 per $1,000 in assessed value to fund the society'ꀙs operations. At its peak, the revenue supported a $2 million operation with 40 employees. They also hired free-lance writers. I know: In 1988, while I was living in Ashland, I sold one of my very first free-lance articles to SOHS'ꀙs quarterly magazine.

I found the history of the Rogue River Valley full of wonderful historical cubby holes like the hundreds of hollows in the surrounding Siskiyou Mountains. My article was about local illegal stills during Prohibition. The organization preserved the story of the native Takilma people, a tribe that went extinct soon after gold miners arrived in the 1850s. The miners trudged a little known branch of the Oregon Trail known as the Applegate Trail. The businessmen who followed founded Jacksonville, which became the county seat. When the seat moved to Medford in the 1920s, Jacksonville was frozen in time.

In 1966, SOHS led an effort to make the entire town one of the nation'ꀙs first officially designated National Historic Districts. Today, Jacksonville is a must-see for travelers taking in a play at Ashland'ꀙs Oregon Shakespearean Festival, sampling southern Oregon wines, and hearing nationally recognized artists at the Peter Britt outdoor music festival.

But SOHS'ꀙs world started to unravel in 1997, when Oregon voters approved a statewide measure that consolidated special levies into a single county tax base. SOHS now had to make an annual case for funding to Jackson County commissioners. Eying the revenue during a time of falling timber tax receipts and shrinking budgets, commissioners declared that SOHS should become self-sufficient and cut funding. SOHS sued, got a three-year reprieve, and increased its earned revenue from nearly zero in 2003 to $500,000 a year in 2007. But it wasn'ꀙt enough to maintain operations, and they asked the commissioners for more money. The commissioners refused, saying the group'ꀙs request for an additional $750,000 over two years demonstrated mismanagement.

SOHS then gambled that voters would again approve a special levy as they had in 1948. But organizers failed to get the 16,632 signatures needed to put a measure on the 2008 ballot. The society survived with a line of credit against its property in Medford. But when the auto dealership pulled out in August of this year, SOHS couldn'ꀙt service the debt. So it shut down for six months to re-organize.

The precariousness of SOHS's local government funding is not unique. In 2008, King County's revenue from the state-sanctioned lodging tax, which is dedicated to arts and heritage activities, funded $1.1 million in heritage and historic preservation projects, and a good portion of the money went to subsidize the operations of non-profit historical societies and similar groups. But the revenue has recently become the target of state lawmakers who want to spend the money on upgrades to KeyArena and low-income housing. If they succeed, funding could be reduced for heritage projects and organizations, threatening the existence of these financially weak groups. (Typically, museums and historical societies earn only about half their revenue through ticket sales, memberships, donations, and private grants. Local governments provide the rest.)

The loss of support in Washington state for heritage and preservation could have devastating effects on local economies. A 2006 study by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation found that heritage tourists spent $307 million in King County alone, with 8,472 jobs tied to the industry. If small museums died because government subsidies disappeared, so would thousands of jobs and millions in economic activity. That'ꀙs the scenario facing the small business owners and residents of Jacksonville, Oregon today.

Despite the gloom, SOHS is trying to stay upbeat. Executive Director Allison Weiss says the shutdown has forced the society'ꀙs leadership to consider radical changes to the way it does business. 'ꀜPeople believe this is a serious situation,'ꀝ she says. 'ꀜPeople believe this place will re-open.'ꀝ


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