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Southern Oregon's history deserves taxpayer support

History is always with us, and lately it is playing a role in some of Southern Oregon’s most exciting projects.

The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy recently received a million-dollar grant toward purchase of the historic Ruhl property on the Rogue River that includes a historic 1920s-era lodge. In Medford the Holly Theatre renovation, supported by more than a million dollars of state and private donations, is ramping up to revitalize Medford’s largest movie palace for public performances. The Barnum Block in downtown is getting a new façade, to help beautify Main Street and support local business. The Southern Oregon Friends of Hospice are buying the historic Harry and Eleanor Holmes House, and will rehabilitate and restore it.

In Eagle Point, a new nonprofit board is raising funds to rebuild the Butte Creek Mill after the fire, and will continue a 143-year milling tradition. In Ashland, the city is restoring Pioneer Mike and the Carter Fountain, which have graced the Plaza since 1910 and were damaged by vandals.

Throughout the valley, private citizens are renovating historic homes for their own use, as residences, as offices or even commercial uses. Historic neighborhoods are typically the most desirable and beautiful parts of our cities.

Yet despite all this interest and investment, many people see “history” as nice, but only if we can afford it. Certainly that has occasionally been the attitude of government.

But history plays a key role in Oregon and in our local economy, which is more and more based on tourism and quality of life. Tourism generated more than $10 billion in Oregon in 2014 according to TravelOregon, and heritage sites are a main part of that. Heritage tourism creates jobs, provides funding through hotel/motel taxes and supports all sorts of other things that make Oregon what it is.

Studies show that heritage tourists stay longer, spend more and support the local economy to a greater degree than other tourists. A recent state report documents that 83 percent of visitors to Oregon want to see places and events that authentically reflect the past, including cultural, natural and historic sites.

And so it is with an eye toward the economic value of heritage and the value of places like the Holly, Ruhl Ranch or the Butte Creek Mill, that I encourage Jackson County to wisely consider the opportunity to support and retain the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Since 1949, when we became the first county in Oregon to provide public funding for the protection of local historic materials, we have benefited from SOHS through its publications, exhibits and education, and through the conservation of what is now the second-largest collection of local history in Oregon.

Yes, of course, there have been issues with how SOHS was managed in the past, and unfortunate excess that grew out of its complacency. Those days are gone, along with the original Jackson County historical levy, which not only supported SOHS but spawned a string of local societies in Talent, Phoenix, Gold Hill and elsewhere. Today’s SOHS is a lean operation, relying on diligent volunteers and a skeleton staff. Yet SOHS continues to be the go-to place for historical photos and documentation to support activities from middle-schoolers and college students working on class projects to locals and visitors tracking a lost relative. And to businesses, and even government, that need historic information to support their operations or promote the valley.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners is considering whether to put a levy request on the November ballot asking for a modest tax base for SOHS. It should. Let SOHS and the other local organizations to make their case directly to the voters and we can all decide if paying a modest fee to protect this asset is a worthwhile investment. I think it is.

When this issue comes up, I hope Jackson County voters show the same foresight and wisdom they did in 1949. Each of the projects underway, and many more that need doing, deserve our support. Each will be much more likely to succeed if we maintain the SOHS collection for all to use.

George Kramer, a restoration consultant from Ashland, has been a dues-paying member of SOHS for over three decades.