SOHS shows signs of life, but financial future remains uncertain

After two difficult years, Southern Oregon Historical Society officials are still struggling to raise operating funds, but they hope to turn a financial corner this summer.

"It's taken us two years to find our footing," said SOHS Executive Director Terrie Martin. "This is our summer to make the organization vital and relevant."

From July 2008 to April 2009, the historical society had a budget of $534,579.47, but had to tap into a line of credit for $148,789.17 to meet expenses.

Martin, who made a presentation to Jackson County commissioners Tuesday, said steps have been taken that could help overcome the red ink.

Membership in the society has grown from 700 to 1,000 over the past two years, and Hanley Farm's historic building will be open three days a week during the summer to help attract more visitors, who pay ($5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors) to tour the old farmhouse. Previously, the building was open just five days a year.

By June or July, Martin said the fees generated should give the society a sense of whether it will be able to raise revenues substantially.

Martin said the society recently applied for nine different grants, which are often used to make repairs on buildings, such as the roof on the carriage house behind the historic Beekman House in Jacksonville.

At the same time, it's adding new members, at $39 for an individual or $50 for a family membership. Society members are entitled to free admission to the society's buildings.

"It's been important to us to find donors who believe in us," said Martin. "Two years ago they thought we were dead. They thought we would go belly up."

Ashland resident Alan DeBoer created a $600,000 line of credit for the historical society, but about $400,000 has been used.

DeBoer, a businessman and former Ashland mayor, came with Martin to the Jackson County commissioners Tuesday to give officials a rundown on the society's finances and plans for the future.

"The historical society is doing well at the present time, though there are some challenges," he said. "This is an organization that two years ago was struggling to pay a bill."

Despite the society's problems, DeBoer said it's at a point where he predicts it will make a turn for the better.

Seven of the nine buildings run by the historical society are owned by the county, including the Jacksonville Museum and the Beekman Bank.

Jackson County voters in 1948 approved a historical levy that provided money for the historical society, but a 1997 statewide ballot measure merged all such levies into each county's general fund. Over the next decade, commissioners gradually eliminated funding for SOHS and the other historical societies in small towns across the county.

Martin said that with most of the line of credit spent, there is only enough money to sustain the historical society at its current levels for about another year.

In addition, about 33 percent of the revenues for the historical society comes from property rentals, specifically the J.C. Penney building in downtown Medford and the U.S. Hotel.

Martin said Lithia Motors has until June 30 to let the society know whether it wants to purchase the J.C. Penney building, continue leasing it or consider some other option. The building is located in an area of Medford where Lithia wants to create its corporate headquarters, a project known as The Commons, that went on hold when the economy slumped.

Commissioner Jack Walker suggested the historical society consider selling off some of its buildings in an effort to pare the operation down as much as possible.

Martin reminded him that the buildings, which are owned by the county, have an extensive paper trail leading back to an original donor who gave them to the county specifically for the benefit of the public. County officials previously explored selling some of the buildings but determined it would be extremely difficult to do that legally.

Martin said it costs about $138,000 for the annual maintenance on the buildings.

Within the next month, the historical society hopes to bring in a new executive director from Philadelphia. Martin said she didn't want to disclose the candidate's name until a contract has been signed.

Martin said the prospective director has a master's degree in museum studies as well as an extensive background in history and experience with museums.

Her salary, which is still being negotiated, would come from Martin's half-time wages and from another employee who has left.

With awareness of history sparked by Oregon's sesquicentennial celebration this year, Martin said she thinks that Jackson County residents have an interest in history and will want to support the historical society.

"If people step up, we'll be fine," she said.