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Heritage district campaign begins

Jackson County's historic preservation advocates will ask voters in November 2008 to create a countywide heritage district that would raise about $1 million per year to maintain collections of artifacts and historic properties such as the old county courthouse in Jacksonville.

Supporters of the measure kicked off their campaign Monday to put a measure on the ballot that would levy a tax of 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for historic preservation. That would amount to less than $12 for a house assessed for tax purposes at $167,000, about average in Jackson County.

Supporters of the measure will need the signatures of about 17,000 registered voters to qualify it for the ballot. Even though the district's actual tax would be small, passing it may be an uphill battle, said John Enders, executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"We think voters will see it as a great deal," Enders said. "We feel if we can get that many signatures on petitions, we'll have won the campaign because we'll have already gotten the support we need."

Passing the measure will be "very tough, because a substantial amount of people resist any increase in taxes, no matter what," said Tam Moore, a former county commissioner and member of the steering committee for the levy campaign.

"We can't take anything for granted," said Lynn Newbry of Talent, former state senator and honorary co-chairman of the steering committee "We've got to visit all communities and get support."

Jackson County voters approved a tax for historic preservation in 1948, but it was lost in 1996 when Oregon voters approved the tax limits of Ballot Measure 47. Declining federal timber revenues led to reductions in county support for SOHS and the local historical societies in communities across the county.

The county made its final contribution to SOHS last April.

Backers of the measure said historic preservation in Jackson County would basically disappear if voters reject it.

"If it fails, I predict several collections of historic artifacts will sort of disappear. Some might be sold and be lost forever," said Moore. "That's what happens when the institutions of a community lack support."

The old Jacksonville courthouse might be a casualty, too, Newbry said. "We would simply not have the money to maintain the buildings, and I don't think we could get grants and gifts for them over an extended period."

Publicly owned historic properties, including the Beekman House, the U.S. Hotel and Catholic Rectory, all in Jacksonville, would have to be sold or the county would have to find funds to maintain them, Newbry said.

The measure would create the first heritage district in Oregon, using a mechanism created by House Bill 3538 during the 2007 session of the Legislature. Enders said the district could be the first of its kind in the West.

If supporters of the measure gather enough valid signatures, commissioners will hold hearings on the measure before placing it on the ballot. Local city councils will have an opportunity to vote on the proposal. And if a council rejects the measure, that city will be excluded from the district.

The measure would create a Jackson County Heritage Association, governed by five elected, at-large board members. Besides SOHS, it would include the historical societies of Applegate, Big Butte, Buncom, Camp White, Eagle Point, Gold Hill, Lake Creek, McKee Bridge, Phoenix, Talent, Upper Rogue and the Rogue Valley Genealogy Society, Woodville Museum and Southern Oregon Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

The levy, estimated to raise $1.09 million in its first year, would give $656,871 to SOHS and the rest, after administrative costs, to the other historic organizations. All the smaller historical societies would be governed by the district board, and SOHS would have no authority over them, Enders said.

He said historic attractions draw many visitors to Southern Oregon, and history is an important resource for local schools. Declining budgets for history have been reflected in a 37 percent reduction in student visits to historic museums and an 85 percent decline in visits overall.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.