Southern Oregon University and the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation stepped back from the brink and hammered out a new agreement that appears to protect the nation's most extensive regional public radio network and restart the Holly Theatre restoration. Those are both good things, but they may have come at the expense of Jefferson Square, the proposed relocation of JPR's studios to downtown Medford.
The new agreement announced last week is a relief to those who feared a dispute between the university and the nonprofit foundation might threaten the very future of public radio in the region and scuttle plans to renovate the historic Holly Theatre into a performing arts center before the project had really gotten off the ground.
The clash over the governance and structure of JPR and its fundraising foundation came after an audit of the JPR Foundation by the office of the Chancellor of Higher Education raised questions about the financial details of the foundation's plans to renovate the Holly Theatre and move its studios to Medford. The audit also questioned the role of Ron Kramer, who was serving as executive director of the independent, nonprofit foundation and of Jefferson Public Radio, a department of Southern Oregon University, suggesting the dual roles were a conflict of interest. The document also raised concerns that the foundation's fundraising efforts could compete with those of the SOU Foundation.
SOU President Mary Cullinan dismissed Kramer from his JPR post and he resigned as director of the foundation.
An earlier mediation session resulted in a proposed settlement that would have created a new JPR Foundation board with the majority of members appointed by SOU and community colleges. It also would have transferred ownership of all broadcast licenses, equipment and other assets to a new nonprofit entity.
JPR Foundation board members disagreed with several of the provisions, but SOU threatened the members with individual lawsuits if they didn't go along. At that point, Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped in, called for a cooling off period and appointed a new mediator for a new round of negotiations. SOU agreed to drop the threat of lawsuits.
The new agreement announced last week creates a new nonprofit entity, Jefferson Live!, to take over operation of the Cascade Theatre and the fundraising for renovating the Holly. The JPR Foundation will own the new entity, but the foundation will raise funds only for the public radio stations. SOU will assume ownership of all the broadcast licenses, but may not sell them without consulting with JPR and the foundation, and any proceeds will go to JPR, not to the university's general fund. Jeffnet, the Internet service provider that benefits JPR, will remain with the foundation.
The foundation board will be unchanged, and may also serve as the board of the new Jefferson Live!
Work on the Holly now can proceed, but the project has been dealt a serious blow from the uncertainty and delay while the dispute played out. SOU and the University System bear much of the blame for that.
In the end, SOU and the state university system got the separation they wanted between the theater operations and the radio stations, the foundation got to keep its board and its autonomy and JPR got to keep the financial value of its broadcast licenses.
What may have been lost is the plan to develop new studios, which would have been a major contribution to downtown Medford. Steve Nelson, president of the foundation board, has made it clear that Jefferson Square will be of secondary importance while the Holly project proceeds.
The best outcome would have been for the university system to stay out of JPR's business in the first place. The worst result would have been the first proposed settlement.
The third outcome falls somewhere between those extremes. SOU and the university system should do everything they can to support the new structure and its projects from now on.