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Historical groups push heritage districts

Struggling organizations managing historical attractions in Jackson County hope voters will approve a levy in 2014 that would create a Rogue Valley Heritage District and raise more than $800,000 a year.

McKee Bridge, the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society, and the Jacksonville Courthouse are some of the local sites seeking additional funding from the levy, which would add a maximum of 5 cents for each $1,000 in assessed valuation if voters approve. On a house with $200,000 assessed value, the extra annual tax would be $10.

Tam Moore of the Our Heritage Political Action Committee said local cities have received letters recently describing how important the levy would be for the 17 historical districts in Jackson County. "The need is there, and the draft economic impact statement shows the tremendous boost to the local economy by having a bunch of local museums," Moore said.

According to data compiled by the Southern Oregon Visitors Association in 2010, 42 percent of the region's 3.4 million annual visitors cited historical sites as one of their most popular activities.

Because many museums and historical buildings offer limited hours, visitors don't stay in Southern Oregon as long as they might, resulting in fewer tourist dollars, historic district supporters say.

Moore said organizers will take their case to cities, which will get a chance to weigh in on the levy proposal. Some may want to opt out of the heritage district, Moore said.

Once local cities make a decision, a map will be drawn up describing the boundaries of the district.

Supporters then will collect signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters living within the boundaries of the district to qualify for the May 2014 ballot.

In 2008, supporters of the Rogue Valley Historic District failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

In 1948, Jackson County voters approved a permanent levy of 25 cents per $1,000 to support historical preservation. That money is still being collected, but it became part of the county general fund when voters approved ballot measures 47 and 50 a decade ago, and the money no longer goes to historical societies.

If voters approve the levy in 2014, $843,588 would be collected in the 2015-16 fiscal year, and about $200,000 of that would be set aside each year for a restoration and preservation fund. The restoration account would be retained for at least two years to build up enough money for investment in a significant project.

Most of the historical societies would receive between $13,000 and $28,000 a year. The Southern Oregon Historical Society would receive the largest share at $225,000 annually. The Jacksonville historic buildings would receive the second-largest share at $47,450.

Anne Billeter, director of the genealogical society's library, said its $22,000 share of the proposed levy would help defray some of the organization's $44,125 operating costs and allow for more genealogical research.

She said the society is staffed by volunteers, but lights, heating and utilities are some of the main costs that make up the annual operating budget. The society also subscribes to expensive database websites, and it has an extensive library of information about genealogy.

The genealogical society purchased a larger building at 3405 S. Pacific Highway for $320,000 last year and remodeled it for a September 2012 grand opening.

Billeter said volunteers tried to do the lion's share of remodeling work on the building to keep the costs down.

Fundraising is ongoing to help pay for the new building, which was necessary to provide enough space for all the materials and to offer classes, Billeter said.

The more visible location has helped attract new members, Billeter said. In January, the society had 31 new members, a monthly record, she said, boosting total membership to 600.

Dick Thierolf, the immediate past president of the Southern Oregon Historical Society board, said the additional dollars would help his organization, which closed most of its operations at one point to restructure. Since then, the historical society has added programs and created more events at Hanley Farm.

"The existential crisis seems to have abated," he said. "It's nice to have a plan instead of always being forced to react."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

Library director Anne Billeter says a heritage district levy would help the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society conduct more genealogical research. - Julia Moore