Plays Well with Others: Preservation Work Through Partnerships

By Ethiel Garlington posted 04-20-2018 13:58


Editor’s note: Preservation Month is coming up in May, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation encourages you to celebrate the important places in your community. Can collaborating with new and existing partners—as well as the other key concepts outlined in Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future—help you save the places that matter to you? Let us know what the future of preservation means to you: download the "This Place Matters" toolkit, and share your photos on social media with #ThisPlaceMatters.

Historic preservation can be a challenging field, and we certainly need all the help we can muster. So why are many preservation organizations given to throwing rocks instead of seeking solutions?

Historic Macon Foundation members and community partners rally to save historic tax credits in October 2017. Credit: Maryann Bates

Macon, Georgia, is a city that should not be in the midst of a renaissance. We have extreme poverty. We have record high unemployment. Our four-year-old consolidated government has a $4 million budget shortfall. Nonetheless, in the past five years, we’ve added 163 lofts downtown as well as 15 bars and 22 restaurants. Historic Macon Foundation (HMF) has added a new position, rounding out our staff to 10. Given Macon’s population of 150,000, we now have one of the most aggressive preservation staff to population ratios in the nation.

There’s a simple explanation for our exponential growth: partnerships. Even with a badass staff, we would not be able to do our work without the collaboration and support of our many, many community partners.

At HMF we use the term “partnership” broadly and inclusively, keeping in mind that partnering with others demands trust, empathy, compromise, and hustle. We don’t have a perfect process or formula, but we’ve found that three steps typically work well:

  1. Find your partners.
  2. Know your partners.
  3. Remember that people are partners.

Find Your Partners

Since 1973 HMF has worked to revitalize three historic neighborhoods using a model evolved from years of working on individual properties in historic districts. When we embarked on our first neighborhood approach in Huguenin Heights, we started by creating a list of potential stakeholders. Mercer University was at the top of the list.

Arguably Macon’s most important asset, Mercer historically had not ventured beyond its campus footprint to surrounding neighborhoods. That changed when it partnered with HMF to embark on a down payment assistance program that offered Mercer staff $20,000 toward the purchase of a house in the designated neighborhood.  

The program has been wildly successful and has resulted in Mercerians buying more than 50 houses. Mercer officials describe the partnership as “enlightened self-interest”—after all, the university’s investment is leveraging our work and transforming the blighted neighborhoods that border its pristine campus. Imagine the difference this makes when prospective students and their parents visit Macon and drive through beautiful historic neighborhoods; 20 years ago, they would have been driving down derelict streets of vacant houses.

How many higher education institutions are not yet preservation partners because we haven’t taken time to learn their needs? And what other potential partnerships are we overlooking? How can our work be mutually beneficial? 

Know Your Partners 

It can be hard to make time to get to know partners, but doing so is critical to any preservation organization’s success. In 2013 a group of leaders from Macon’s community-building organizations recognized the need to work collaboratively and harness their collective strengths and achievements to create a new community and economic development strategy. These leaders realized that many Macon-Bibb County organizations were focusing on the same community challenges—like the combating blight while encouraging the creative economy and entrepreneurship—but in different parts of the region.

OneMacon! meets at Historic Macon Foundation headquarters. Credit: Rachelle Wilson

The result is OneMacon!: an ad hoc group of 30 “implementation partners” who hold one another accountable and collectively share goals and plans. OneMacon!’s master plan is composed of three pillars—jobs, schools, and place.—and HMF’s neighborhood revitalization is a critical piece of the “place” pillar.

The group convenes monthly and is set to embark on a new strategic plan for the community in the coming months. It’s a simple concept, but it’s incredibly powerful to be seated at the same table as our mayor, top business leaders, representatives from the chamber of commerce, the school superintendent, peers from other nonprofit organizations, and local funders. HMF routinely hosts the group in our new headquarters—imagine the benefits of having the most influential people in Macon gathered in our office.

People are Partners 

Macon purportedly has more church buildings per capita than any other city in the country. We cannot confirm that claim, but we regularly encounter with churches in our advocacy efforts. In fact, on my first day as executive director of HMF, the historic Tremont Temple Baptist Church—a place where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke—was demolished.

Historic Macon Foundation engages local partners, large and small—including students at Alex II Elementary School in Beall's Hill. Credit: Maryann Bates

Needless to say, I have strived to solidify relationships with church leadership since day one. In particular, HMF has worked closely with the Cotton Avenue Coalition, a group formed after the loss of Tremont Temple and the Douglass House, which was arguably one of the most important buildings in Macon’s African American legacy. The coalition is not mandated or sponsored by anyone. It is a grassroots group of people who are passionate about the neighborhood and see the importance of working together with unlikely partners. HMF provides the coalition with staff and logistics support for grant management and event planning. When people work collectively toward a shared objective—preserving Cotton Avenue, for example—the strength of their passion and the distinct value they each bring can more than make up for the absence of a formal structure.  

HMF’s mission is simple: “to revitalize our community by preserving architecture and sharing history.” We cannot accomplish that mission without partners. Take time to consider who would benefit from your work. Be genuine and intentional about meeting prospective partners, and be open and honest about your intentions. Partnerships are key to our success because none of our work happens without people.

Ethiel Garlington has served as the executive director of Historic Macon Foundation since March 2014.

Also Read: Using Historic Preservation to Honor a More Diverse American Story and  Building a People-Centered Preservation Movement in Atlanta