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Schoharie Crossing seeking input from public on its future

Thursday, June 6, 2013
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— The Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site is in the midst of some big changes.

For decades it stood as a physical connection to Erie Canal history, but tropical storms Irene and Lee opened up a possible new focus. Floodwaters washed away the site parking lot, along with a few outbuildings, to reveal the foundations of old Fort Hunter and a passel of Mohawk Indian relics.

With all the damage, and new historical opportunities, site manager Janice Fontanella organized a public meeting to ask local residents how they’d like to see Schoharie Crossing move forward.

“This is the first time we’ve done anything like this,” she said.

The meeting is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Fort Hunter Firehouse.

“We’re looking for a healthy discussion about the future of the site,” she said.

Since evidence of Mohawk-soldier relations was discovered in shattered teacups, pipe stone and foundations under the parking lot, it would seem the site has plenty of opportunities to discuss. With all the newly discovered history, Fontanella and her superiors at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation had to decide whether to stick with the site’s current, canal-related offerings or expand programming.

They also had to figure out where to put a new parking lot and how to repair miscellaneous flood damage, but none of those things are up for public comment.

Fontanella said many of the native artifacts will be displayed alongside the newer canal remnants, expanding the site’s reach from decades to centuries. The parking lot is slated to be installed in a back field where no native artifacts have been found.

The point of the meeting is simply to get input on programming and future projects, which Fontanella said is a big deal all its own.

“As museums and historical sites, we used to say, ‘Here is what we have, come and look at it,’ ” she said. “Now we’re asking the public, ‘What would you like to see and how can we make it more interesting to you?’ ”

That shift from museum to community hub was prompted in large part by a big cut in government funding back in 2010.

“We had to cut two of our five permanent staff,” she said.

With less state money, the site had to rely more on donations from visitors, a group she said has been shrinking for years. In an effort to involve people, she’s asking the public for its advice.

“When people are part of something, they feel invested,” she said. “I think this is a shift taking place across all museums and historical sites.”

John Naple, a four-year member of the Friends of Schoharie Crossing, said he expects to be at the meeting with a few plans of his own. There’s a section of usable towpath along the old canal within the site property. That path runs in disrepair all the way to Amsterdam’s south side.

“I’d love to see that cleared,” he said.

Naple has high hopes for the public meeting, pointing out such community interaction has been lacking in the past.

“We get people stopping by from all over the world,” he said. “I think sometimes we forget about the people in our own backyard.”

 
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