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Lawmaker looks to revive Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission

Thursday, May 30, 2013
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— A possible resurrection of the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission won’t include an answer to the funding problems that made it dormant in recent years.

The commission’s legal authority to operate expired this spring, but an effort to extend the authorization for another decade is being spearheaded by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam. His legislation, which doesn’t include a new source of funding, is designed to give the commission the opportunity for a second life.

“If there is funding … they can continue the work they’re doing,” Santabarbara said. “We’re hoping that funding becomes available at some point.”

The commission was formed in the mid-1990s as a way to promote the history and culture of an eight-county region, which included Saratoga, Fulton, Montgomery, Schoharie and Schenectady counties.

Paul Bray, who helped write the initial legislation, said the commission was formed to stop the region from being ignored. “The Mohawk Valley seemed to be a forgotten place, and it has a terrific story,” he said.

After more than a decade of projects, including installing historical interpretive signs, providing local history lessons for teachers and coordinating relief efforts after flooding in 2006, the commission was dealt a severe blow when state funding dried up during the budget crunch of 2009.

The cut forced the commission to close its office in Canajoharie and staff was laid off in 2010, making it a volunteer operation. The loss of funding caused Fulton and Saratoga counties to leave the commission in 2011, with both counties recommending the commission be disbanded.

Fred Miller, who was the final executive director of the commission, leaving for health reasons in 2009, said it has been essentially in a coma since funding was cut. “Nobody is in charge and there is no money,” he said of the commission’s current status.

Despite the bleak outlook, there is still a belief that the commission should be revitalized. Bray said there is interest in the project, especially in Montgomery County, and Miller said he would “go back and run it tomorrow.”

It’s this kind of enthusiasm that Santabarbara is counting on, as his legislation would require someone to actively put the commission back together. If someone is willing, he said, “They can bring [the commission] back easier with this bill.”

A relaunch of the commission could find support on the national level. U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who sponsored the legislation creating the commission while in the state Assembly, is the co-founder of the bipartisan National Heritage Area Caucus, which could potentially steer private or public funds to the commission.

“I believe in the concept,” Tonko said of the commission. “We’re sitting on a gold mine of history and heritage.”

If the commission was brought back, Bray said it would probably need to rethink its funding strategy, which was outlined in a management plan. It previously received a vast majority of its funding through the state, with some money coming from grants and private donations.

“I don’t think they took full advantage of developing the resources they needed to continue,” Bray said, questioning whether the commission took the appropriate fee from municipalities when it helped them secure grants.

Santabarbara said the management plan for funding is something that could be reviewed.

Possibly complicating the commission’s ability to secure funding are the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils, which award money to the types of programs that the commission would administer. Miller acknowledged this could be an obstacle, but if it is handled right, he said, the commission could use its “boots on the ground” perspective to win money through the council process.

Bray said one role for the commission could be coordinating new state ventures in the Mohawk Valley. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has money for a Mohawk Basin Program, which focuses on areas like fisheries and working landscapes, and the state’s Department of State is in charge of waterfront revitalization. The commission, he said, could help provide a perspective from the ground that makes both programs effective.

Santabarbara and Miller endorsed that idea.

Santabarbara’s bill has been reported to the Assembly calendar and could come up for a vote as early as next week. There are talks with Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, about introducing companion legislation in the state Senate.

 
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