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Small crowd weighs in on the future of Jacksonville's historic courthouse

JACKSONVILLE — The historic Jackson County Courthouse may be an important connection to this city's past, but if a turnout for a Tuesday night meeting is any indication, residents are not overly concerned about the building's future.

Only three people offered ideas during a City Council session designed to get public comments on what to do with the building that is now owned by the city.

One speaker said the 19th century courthouse should be returned to its former use as a museum. Two more advocated for performances in the now-vacant building.

"I was surprised that there weren't more people here," said Planning Commission Chairman Owen Jurling. No elected or appointed officials offered suggestions.

The building served as the Jackson County Courthouse from 1883 until the county seat was moved to Medford in 1927. It is among the approximately 100 buildings in Jacksonville on the National Register of Historic Places.

In November, Jackson County transferred ownership of the former courthouse, three other buildings on its grounds and the Catholic Rectory, Beekman House and Beekman Bank to the city.

In February the city received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Family Foundation of Roseburg to examine potential uses and work needed for the courthouse. Tuesday's session was part of that process.

The Southern Oregon Historical Society removed its museum from the building in 2010. A former mayor called for a return to that use.

"I have always been very saddened by the fact that we don't have a museum," said Clara Wendt.

Wendt said the Chamber of Commerce's Visitor Information Center gets regular inquiries about the museum. During spring break the center had 26 such questions on March 27 alone, she reported. On other days inquires numbered in the teens.

"They had several very large family groups come in (asking about the museum)," she said.

Efforts to make money from building uses would do damage to the community's reputation as an historical center, Wendt said.

"I believe frankly the best and highest use of the building is to use a large portion of it for a museum," said Wendt.

Jacksonville resident Terry Erdmann was among those who addressed the council. He said after the meeting the city should consider ways to get a return on the building.

"It's a real asset for the city, so the city should attempt to use it as an asset," said Erdmann, who suggested it could be used as a concert venue.

But upgrades and renovation would need to be done at the courthouse. The city will seek grants to finance work, but one estimate for seismic reinforcement alone ranged from $332,000 to $415,000.

"The question is, of course, the investment," said Erdmann. "It takes money to make money, that's the dilemma."

Robin Downward, managing artistic director of Medford's Randall Theatre, said the second floor of the courthouse could become a theater or performance space.

Jacksonville, like Ashland, has a large-scale entertainment event with the Britt Musical Festival, which runs from June to October, he said. A year-round presence of performances would add to the town's ability to attract visitors.

"Whether it's the Randall Theatre or some other theater or other productions, that would support the town," Downward told the council.

Mayor Paul Becker previously has suggested that the courthouse could be used for city offices.

PARC Resources of Bend has been hired by the city to develop a vision for the courthouse's use under the grant. PARC representative Susan Nuetzman moderated the session and said that more community involvement will be sought.

Written comments may be sent to recorder@jacksonville.or.us or mailed to P.O. Box 7, Jacksonville, OR 97530.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.