Working Together

People in western Montgomery County have embraced a spirit of cooperation in their efforts to preserve two historic buildings and promote the area’s tourism and development.

Two organizations – Historic Fort Plain and Canajoharie’s Historic West Hill School Committee – have agreed to merge their operations under the name Mohawk Valley Collective. The Fort Plain group already was established as a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation, but the Canajoharie group was not, and since the groups have similar missions and several members in common, they decided to merge the groups formally.

Tolga Morawski, a key member of both groups, said it didn’t make sense for the Canajoharie volunteers to form their own corporation, with all the legal and financial paperwork that would have required.

“It seemed to me like a huge duplication of effort,” said Morawski, a Fort Plain native who lives and works in New York City but spends weekends in the Mohawk Valley, devoting much of his free time to the restoration projects.

Historic Fort Plain’s Unity Hall project and the West Hill School project both could take years to complete, but in the meantime, the Mohawk Valley Collective already has its first success story. On Saturday, the group will celebrate the grand opening of its new Tourism Information Center at 89 Church St. in downtown Canajoharie.

“We want to show people that we can do more than just a building restoration project,” Morawski said.

The Tourism Information Center, or “TIC,” opened quietly just a month ago, but already the pages of its guestbook bear the names of visitors from across New York and more than a dozen other states, as well as Canada and Europe.

“We’ve had a lot of local people come in, too, and they’re curious,” said Linda Kellett, an employee of the Mohawk Valley Collective who staffs the TIC. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

She said 10 to 20 people stop in every day, some asking for directions or recommendations for places to eat. In addition to a restroom, WiFi and a place to charge one’s mobile phone, he TIC offers maps and brochures directing people to attractions throughout the region – not just Canajoharie and Fort Plain but every destination from Cooperstown to the Adirondacks.

“We’re in the middle of everything, and it doesn’t make sense to have a narrow focus,” Kellett said. “We’re all about building up the area.”

The flow of visitors to the TIC is expected to increase markedly once a sign goes up near Exit 29 on the Thruway directing people to it.

Hein Kraak, a local contractor and co-owner of the Elephant Bistro, is head of the West Hill School group. He also did much of renovation work on the Tourism Information Center, converting a former pizza shop into a bright and welcoming stop for visitors.

“One of the fastest ways for us to get people into our town is to get them off the Thruway,” Kraak said. “An enormous number of people drive past every day … but we’re missing the income from that traffic, so we started to look into how to get them off the Thruway and into our area.”

The TIC takes up half the ground floor of a retail building owned by John McGlone, whose wife, Michele, runs a boutique, Gollum Vintage, in the adjoining space. Kraak said McGlone, one of the collective’s biggest backers, is letting the group use the TIC space for free.

Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to take place at 11 a.m., and dignitaries from all over the region have been invited to participate. It will be one of several events taking place throughout the day as part of “Standing Strong: A River Through Time,” a fundraiser for victims of the late-June flooding.

Morawski said the event, which has financial support from Montgomery County through its occupancy tax, was first intended to raise money for MVC’s restoration projects, but the needs of the flood victims are more urgent. Money raised Saturday will be distributed to victims through the Fulton Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee, which works with the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities.

The village of Canajoharie is expected to hand over the West Hill School deed to the nonprofit group as soon as Monday. The huge stone building is on the National Register of Historic Places, but today, pigeon droppings and graffiti mar the building where Susan B. Anthony taught in the 1840s.

The building has had a number of owners over the years, but none managed to successfully complete the restoration. Before the county and then the village took over ownership of the property, the old school’s interior had been stripped to the bare brick – its original windows and staircase are long gone. In recent months, volunteers have boarded up the empty windows and done minor repairs and cleanup.

Holding the deed to the property will allow the collective to work on bigger projects, Kraak said, including patching holes in the roof. Eventually, the whole roof and more than 130 windows will need to be replaced, and a staircase, elevator and heating system will need to be installed – very expensive propositions.

“Our goal right now is just to make sure the building doesn’t go any further into distress,” Kraak said. “We don’t have finances to put a new roof on it or put new windows in. We can keep the building looking nice, and we can stabilize it, but that’s it. That’s the reality.”

At some point, the group hopes to attract a buyer who will put the building to use, perhaps as an apartment complex, hotel or microbrewery.

“We want to make sure somebody gets it who is going to understand the impact it has on a village of this size,” Kraak said. “We’re looking for a serious person – a serious developer – to start something.”

Since 2011, Historic Fort Plain’s main mission has been restoring an old church for use as an arts and cultural center.

During the latest flooding in Fort Plain, the Unity Hall building had 6 feet of water in its basement, which left behind mud, sewage, mold and broken pipes.

“It was kind of a mess,” Morawski said.

Earlier this year, volunteers including Morawski and Adam Bermas tore down a vacant house next door, creating a half-acre space that will become a park and community garden.

Morawski said Schine-Memorial Hall LLC – a joint effort of many investors to preserve and develop a historic building in downtown Gloversville – has been an inspiration for him and his collaborators.

“We want to get people excited, kind of like they’ve been doing there,” he said. He said he hopes Saturday’s festivities in the two villages will help spread the word about the Mohawk Valley Collective and energize more people in the community to get involved.

“We’re going to improve our situation,” Morawski said. “We’re not going to wait for somebody else to come in and improve our situation.”