The Board of Trustees of the Southern Oregon Historical Society announced that it will suspend most public operations for a period of six months in order to restructure the organization. This is in response to a financial crisis that has been in the making since the Society lost all of its county funding in 2007. Hanley Farm will remain in operation, and school field trips will still be held at the Children’s Museum.
Executive Director Allison Weiss said the Society is not closing; it is reorganizing in order to develop a plan that will ensure the Society is financially sustainable and relevant to the community.
All museum properties located in Jacksonville will close to the general public on Sept. 7, as will the Research Library in Medford. The Children’s Museum in Jacksonville will be open to scheduled school groups. Hanley Farm will continue to operate in order to complete the fall farmers market season and host the annual Harvest Festival and Pumpkin Patch, all activities that bring in people and revenue.
“It surprises me how few people know that the Society receives no funding from the county,” said Weiss, who was brought in to run SOHS in July. “We have tried to maintain an operation that was once operating on a $2 million budget with 40 full time staff people. We are now down to six full time staff members and a fraction of the prior budget yet for the past year, we have tried to keep open all of the facilities. We have nearly depleted the line of credit and have exhausted the staff, many of whom were working 60 hours a week to keep the properties open to the public.”
Two years ago the Society took a $600,000 line of credit against the History Center in Medford. “The hope was to use that money to build new sources of revenue,” said Weiss. “However we neglected to tell the public that we needed their support as well. No nonprofit survives solely off of earned revenue. We needed to raise about 40 percent of our operating budget from private donors and fell far short.”
One unforeseen circumstance was the tenant in the History Center, Lithia Motors, will move out of the building in October. It is estimated that amounts to a loss of income of about $150,000 a year, between rent, insurance and utilities. “Renting or selling the History Center will be a key to our survival in the long run. It was a huge blow to us to lose the Lithia lease,” said Weiss.
During the time that the Society will be closed, the organization will be restructured. Key to this is negotiating with Jackson County to amend the lease on the Jacksonville properties. The Society is seven years into a 50-year lease through which the county leased six historic properties to the Society for $1 a year. The Society in return operates the properties but is also responsible for their maintenance.
Almost all staff members will be laid off as of Monday, Sept. 7, although some will be asked to stay on in a part-time basis. Positions that are grant funded will be retained for the duration of the grant. Several other positions, like bookkeeping and maintenance will be retained with reduced hours.
“The real tragedy of this is the effect on staff,” said Terrie Martin, president of the SOHS board of trustees, who served as executive director through June. “We have employees that have been working here for y ears, and have done everything they could to keep the organization running under very difficult circumstances. There is just not enough money to keep people on at this point and it’s very unfortunate that we could not come up with a solution that would not adversely affect the staff. On behalf of the board, I want to thank the staff members for what they contributed to the Society.”
Both Martin and Weiss stressed that although public operations will cease, the Society is not closing
“We will continue to run educational programs that are grant funded,” said Weiss. “The Heritage Magazine will still be produced on a quarterly basis. Most importantly we will use this time to develop a realistic plan for the future of the organization that includes identifying sources of financial support. I want to rebuild the organization so it is relevant to the community. My vision is to address community issues through the lens of history. What issues are the community struggling with and how can the historical society participate in those discussions by providing a historic perspective? This will require building partnerships with educational, civic, and social service organizations.
“We will also spend the next six months hosting community meeting at which people will be able to tell us what they want to see happen when the Society reopens,” Weiss said. “We also want to assure our members that their memberships will be extended and we will do everything can to keep them informed while we are creating a new business plan.”
Those interested in history are welcome to step forward and join in this overhaul of Southern Oregon Historical Society. To help, call (541) 899-8123, or go to their website at www.sohs.org to sign up for our electronic newsletter.