The gift of a Medford warehouse from the owner of Larson's Home Furnishings was intended to help both Jefferson Public Radio and Southern Oregon University.
Now, that gift has become embroiled in a dispute between the Oregon University System, SOU and JPR.
Carolyn Shaw Straus, vice president of Larson's, said SOU gave its blessings to the JPR Foundation to accept the gift of the 10th Street warehouse building in February 2011. The foundation, which hopes to convert the building into a broadcasting center and offices for the public radio stations, also is renovating the historic Holly Theatre in downtown Medford.
A university system audit has called the JPR Foundation's Medford expansion effort into question, saying it could leave the higher education system liable for the mounting debts. The audit questioned the dual roles of Ron Kramer, who serves as executive director of both JPR and its foundation, saying that creates a potential conflict of interest. SOU President Mary Cullinan informed Kramer Friday that he was being terminated from his JPR job as of June 30.
The turmoil caught Larson's owner Bruce Larson and other company officials by surprise.
"I'm stunned," said Straus, who spoke on behalf of Larson. "Bruce's comment is: 'How could they approve of all of this and go back on what they said?' "
She said JPR and the university struggled for years to build a $20 million center on SOU's campus to house the Western States Museum of Broadcasting and new headquarters for JPR.
In February 2011, JPR announced it would move the museum and JPR's headquarters to Medford.
At the time, Cullinan said the university had supported JPR's presence on the campus for the past 40 years, but said she believed the move was a strategic decision for the radio station.
"We will still have JPR," she said in a 2011 interview. "We will still have a wonderful set of radio stations serving the Rogue Valley. The physical location isn't key."
Straus said the Medford move made financial sense for JPR. Instead of seeking up to $25 million for a museum on the SOU campus, it would be looking at $7 million to renovate the Holly Theatre and to create "Jefferson Square" at the warehouse.
Straus said she suggested the idea of donating the warehouse to the JPR Foundation after SOU created the higher education center in downtown Medford along with Rogue Community College.
"There was a precedent for SOU now to have a presence in Medford," she said. "This enabled JPR to go forward with a plan that everybody was on board with."
Straus said that she had been looking for a worthy organization as a recipient of the building, and Larson was in a position to divest some of his property holdings.
After the donation of the warehouse building, Straus said, the foundation approached Larson about purchasing another building at 315 Front St. to create a plaza and provide parking.
The Front Street property is owned by Larson Charitable Foundation, so the interest payments of $17,500 made by the JPR Foundation are sent back to local charitable organizations. Straus said some of the organizations the foundation supports include Kids Unlimited and the Medford Gospel Mission.
Straus said the payments from the JPR Foundation are less than what the building could be rented for, but Larson decided the extra money was offset because of JPR's community support.
Both the warehouse property and the Front Street properties have reversion clauses, in which Larson could take possession of them after several years if the foundation doesn't actively remodel the buildings.
Straus said she wasn't too worried about that prospect yet, and also indicated that the foundation might have a little wiggle room in the reversion clauses.
Steve Nelson, president of the JPR Foundation board, said, "Bruce Larson was the kindest person in the world. This was never supposed to be controversial."
Nelson said Cullinan was intimately involved in discussions about the gift from Larson as well as JPR's planned move to Medford.
He said the university has expressed concern recently that the JPR Foundation's fundraising efforts could affect the university foundation's donations.
In 2011, Nelson said he told Cullinan and others, "We will be out of your hair with a $7 million project rather than attempting to build a $25 million project."
Cullinan was out of town and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Jim Beaver, spokesman for SOU, said he wasn't aware that Cullinan had made the comments in support of JPR's plans to move to Medford.
"If she did, she made them with the best of intentions," he said.
"I would say that both parties worked creatively to make JPR what it is today," Beaver said. "Some of these decisions are being brought under question."
Beaver said the university's position is that the idea of the broadcasting museum and the Holly Theatre still can work, but they will have to be worked out in mediation between the JPR Foundation and the university system over the next few months.
"I think it is still what everybody wants to have happen," he said.
Beaver said that going forward it is possible that employees with the JPR Foundation can work alongside JPR radio staff employed by the university.
However, the position of executive director for the foundation and for the radio stations have to be separated based on the findings of the university audit.
In addition, the university and JPR need to get a clearer picture of the assets and responsibilities of the foundation. Kramer will continue to work in both positions until his JPR contract runs out on June 30, Beaver said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.