How a tiny collective tackles the big job of revitalizing a historic upstate New York town

The following is a slightly-modified excerpt from an interview by Julia Rocchi of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with Tolga Morawski, founder of the Mohawk Valley Collective in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York.

So many advantages are given to established or “proven” nonprofits with significant resources in applications and funding processes that there is little left for the nascent organizations out there.

I understand there is an aversion to funding something that might fail, but the consequence is that the philanthropic world misses innovation and funding scrappy, resourceful organizations (focused on restoration and revitalization) that will do much more with what they do receive.

Historic preservation for its own sake, in my opinion, is a dead end and is hard to advocate for outside of the buildings we tend to put on a pedestal. I’m constantly focused on viability (repurposing a structure for a viable new use, which then provides the funding to renew it), working with limited resources within distressed communities I have to be. One way to do that is to literally enlist our communities in the process.

So while the MVC is focused on rehabbing our two primary properties—Unity Hall in Fort Plain, and the historic West Hill School in Canajoharie—we quickly realized that we needed to approach preservation in our area differently.

We’ve partnered with villages in our region and Montgomery County at the next level up to survey and put in place National Register historic districts that have opened up literally thousands of property owners to utilize the historic tax credits while giving people pride-of-place in an area that to many, often seems to offer only negatives.

We have had a great deal of success, with minimal pushback from the adherents of the ‘I can paint my house purple if I want to’ mantra because our process engages residents as partners and promotes our architecture (much of it vernacular) and the fabric of our communities as something worthy of noting aside from standout landmark buildings.

These districts allow us to offer low-cost workshops and leverage work via incentives for preservation via federal and state credits over a much broader area than any projects we could do ourselves. After five years, we are on a trajectory towards the first fully districted county in the state, and the initiative is just one of many that reflects that young organizations are capable of things their scale may not seem to reflect.

The MVC continues to explore how to advance preservation and aid in economic revitalization. We’re trying to make what happens in Montgomery County and the Mohawk Valley relevant to the rest of the country.

Feature photo by Tolga Morawski is of downtown Fort Plain (Unity Hall is center right) as seen from a restored 1949 Piper Cub, piloted by Ray Gould.

See full interview in Saving Places.

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