JACKSONVILLE — The transfer of four historic sites from Jackson County to city ownership will be a major move in protecting the 19th-century structures from the wear and tear of time. But it's not likely to result in immediate changes in operations of the attractions.
Jackson County officials announced late Tuesday they plan to transfer ownership of the Jacksonville Courthouse complex, the Beekman House, the Beekman Bank and the St Joseph's's Catholic Rectory to the city of Jacksonville.
The action was the latest chapter in a 15-year saga that left the region's major historical organization, the Southern Oregon Historical Society, on the financial ropes and unable to maintain the buildings.
Mayor Paul Becker said he'd like to see working relationships continue with all the groups involved with the four sites, which once played a more major role in the city's tourism-based economy.
"I regard the courthouse as the soul of Jacksonville," said Becker. "We'll have a big hand in determining its future now."
SOHS leases the buildings from the county, and has agreements authorizing the Jacksonville Heritage Society to manage them. The ownership transfer would relieve SOHS and the county of a financial burden and give the city ownership of important pieces of its history.
"Our interest is that we find someone that could take care of these buildings better than us," said SOHS Executive Director Robert Estertein. SOHS has struggled to maintain the buildings since passage of a 1997 state ballot measure led to elimination of county funding for historical preservation.
"The heritage society has been a wonderful partner in keeping the buildings maintained and bringing in programs," said Estertein. "Our interest is to make sure everyone is treated as fairly as possible."
The two-year-old Jacksonville Heritage Society has agreements with several groups to use the buildings.
At the courthouse complex Art Presence occupies the former jail and the Farmers Market leases space for its seasonal operation. The Friends of St. Joseph supports maintenance at the rectory. The Jacksonville Review maintains access to the Beekman Bank and leases space for an electronic information kiosk there.
Becker said the city will work out a lease agreement with Art Presence. He's "very amenable" to having the Friends of St. Joseph continue its support of the rectory and would also like to see the heritage society continue events at the Beekman House.
Following a discussion with City Administrator Jeff Alvis, Jacksonville Review Publisher Whitman Parker said the current arrangement likely will continue at the Beekman Bank.
The courthouse is now unoccupied. Mel Ashland, co-owner of the Bigham Knoll development, has funded maintenance and utility costs for the courthouse, said Carolyn Kingsnorth, president of the heritage society.
In 2010 Jacksonville residents formed the society to maintain and operate the buildings after SOHS shuttered its operations in town.
"Our goal was to provide at least a good, interim transition to keep the buildings viable while there was an option for something like this to happen," said Kingsnorth. Work has included:
City funds will be needed to cover future maintenance and operating costs. Becker said the current budget does not contain any dedicated funds, but noted the city already maintains the courthouse grounds and has given the heritage society a break on water rates.
The cost of maintaining the Beekman House is about $600 per month, said Kingsnorth. That includes yard upkeep, security, utilities and insurance for the artifacts.
Becker said estimates show a need for about $55,000 in roof and window repairs at the courthouse. Urban renewal funding will be examined as a possible source, he said.
The City Council will need to approve the transfer. Discussion on the transfer has been under way for months and included an executive session on Thursday, Aug. 30, in which Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan spoke.
"I think the transfer will be completed by November," said Becker. The City Council is solidly behind the action, he said.
"We're going to do what we can do to take care of them," said Councilman Dan Winterburn of the historical buildings. "We should have a lot more options as far as getting grants, but that's not going to be the only thing."
Becker said the city would explore options for the future use of the courthouse. It might return to its former status as a museum or perhaps be used for office space, but planning will come first.
"I don't see it opening up in 60 days," said Becker.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.