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A vision and a need — a downtown event center

Medford needs a downtown event center, and the Southern Oregon Historical Society (SOHS) is proposing to fill that void. Bravo!

The need and concept have already been endorsed by The Chamber of Medford and Jackson County and Travel Medford Tourism Council, and the City’s 2040 Vision Task Force cites both Medford and the Rogue Valley as having a “deficiency for meeting space.” SOHS plans to repurpose its 26,000-square-foot historic J.C. Penney History Center into a community facility that will house not only SOHS’s existing library and archives, but also an event center and a museum.

The Downtown Medford Association’s Renatta Tellez says, “SOHS’s efforts to restore the iconic J.C. Penney building into a new event facility aligns with our mission. A downtown multi-events facility is needed.”

With the closure of the event facilities at both the Inn at the Commons (now known as the Merrick) and the Ramada Inn, downtown Medford now lacks event facilities capable of holding hundreds of attendees. That deficit caused both The Chamber of Medford and Jackson County and the Travel Medford Tourism Council to formally review SOHS’s plan. Their joint conclusion: “We support new venues and development opportunities” such as that proposed by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Even before the closure of the Merrick and Ramada event facilities, Medford was struggling with the lack of event space. A 2018 joint effort by the Chamber and the City that studied the need for an event center concluded: “(Medford’s) primary weaknesses as a conference destination are its non-central location in Oregon, its reputation as a commercial city, and its lack of adequate function space.” That study also found that “locally generated meetings and events (typically) make up the majority of conference center events.”

Medford’s 2040 Vision Task Force which studied the city’s long-term goals and needs also concluded that Medford and the Rogue Valley currently have a deficiency of meeting space. As part of the city’s resulting initiative, it defined one of the Task Force’s main goals as to “foster a vibrant downtown open all week with shopping and entertainment to attract people from around the region.”

The need is clear!

New construction for a similar sized facility would involve many more millions in cost. SOHS’s plan is one of Medford’s best — and most immediate — ways of creating such an event facility and helping to invigorate downtown Medford. At $1.2 million, it is certainly the most cost-effective proposal one can imagine.

The J.C. Penney building was extremely well-built and requires only modest upgrades.

SOHS is experienced in event rentals through decades-long rental activity at its Hanley Farm.

The facility’s capacity will be similar to that of the closed Merrick facilities and will help bring weekend events back into the downtown.

The event center’s operating plan does not contemplate any need for subsidization.

SOHS will install a catering kitchen (as opposed to a full commercial kitchen) thus allowing renters to use local caterers for food and strengthen local restaurants.

The facility will have broad potential uses for family events (such as weddings, anniversaries and reunions) as well as commercial meeting space including breakout rooms. Full audio-visual facilities will also allow presentation of small concerts and movies.

SOHS’s plan also stabilizes the society’s long-term finances, which have suffered since Jackson County withdrew its support in 2010. The event center will allow SOHS to develop new museum facilities in a reserved portion of the J. C. Penney building. That museum will also be an important educational and cultural draw for our community.

In the last three weeks of 2021, SOHS members contributed over 5% of the event center project’s total cost and have committed to raise another 5% in the next few months.

SOHS plans a gala and silent auction April 6 at the History Center, 106 N. Central Ave., to launch the fundraising campaign. See http://sohs.org/springforward for details.

SOHS is on the move to strengthen both itself and our community through this event center. The community, including our local government, needs to help turn this potential downtown Medford highlight into a reality — a reality that can also lead to a regional museum, another potential community benefit.

We need SOHS, and we need an event center!

Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication, was a member of the steering committee for the Medford 2040 Vision Taskforce.