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Past leads to future: Historic Cane Hill hires new director

by Lynn Kutter | November 12, 2020 at 7:00 a.m.
Vanessa McKuin, director of Historic Cane Hill Inc., stepped into her role in June during the covid-19 pandemic. “Vanessa’s biggest challenge is going to be how can you partner with other organizations in the area and in the state to make what we have accessible to people,” says John Greer, co-chairman of the Historic Cane Hill Executive Board. Here, she stands beside Historic Cane Hill College, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current two-story, brick college building was constructed in 1886 but had fallen in disrepair. Historic Cane Hill Inc. completely renovated the building during a three-phase restoration project. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Lynn Kutter)

The new executive director for Historic Cane Hill Inc. will focus on building the community and making it a "vibrant place" around the historic landmarks, trails, arts and architecture.

Vanessa McKuin started the job as executive director in June and comes with an historical preservation background along with experience working for nonprofit organizations. She worked for Preserve Arkansas for eight years, a nonprofit group formerly known as Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, and has been development director with KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock.

McKuin's undergraduate degree is from Hendrix College. She then moved to New York City to pursue a master's degree in historical preservation at Pratt Institute, a private university in Brooklyn. After graduate school, she moved back to Arkansas to start looking for a job.

McKuin says she and her husband had always hoped to live in Northwest Arkansas at some point. She learned about the Cane Hill position from John Greer, co-chairman of the Historic Cane Hill Executive Board, and decided to apply for the job. McKuin and Greer knew each other from Preserve Arkansas.

"This seemed like a great opportunity," McKuin says.

Greer says the board received five applications for the position, and McKuin was the only candidate interviewed. McKuin's experience running a nonprofit organization was a "big plus," as well as her experience with historical preservation, Greer says.

"All her key components were a win-win for us," he says. "Historic Cane Hill has worked to preserve existing buildings and wants to sustain what it has, along with an arts component. It was just one of those great fits."

McKuin says she's watched from afar as Historic Cane Hill has restored buildings on site and has seen what the organization has accomplished.

"There's incredible architecture and incredible history here," she says.

The nonprofit organization was established in 2013, dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings and property in the area. For its first seven years, Historic Cane Hill focused on saving and preserving the landmarks of the community.

McKuin says her approach will be to build on that community, to continue partnerships and to find new opportunities for partnerships. She says people are enjoying the trails and looking at the historic buildings, and she wants to find ways to enhance these outdoor experiences.

"We recognize the importance of bringing people here and staying here," she says. "We want people to come and stay awhile."

Starting a job in June during a pandemic was a "strange time" because the buildings at Historic Cane Hill had been closed to the public, McKuin says. However, it has given her time to work on getting up to speed on how things work in Cane Hill, the "ins and outs," she says.

She's been involved with the project to complete the restoration of Cane Hill Presbyterian Church, which is now part of Historic Cane Hill.

McKuin also is helping with the second annual high school art competition, a contest open to all Arkansas students in 10th-12th grades. The grand prize is a scholarship to the University of Arkansas School of Art in Fayetteville.

"This was a very successful high school art competition last year, and we plan to do it again this year," McKuin says.

A decision has not been made yet on whether entries in the competition will be open to the public as an on-site exhibit or virtual exhibit.

McKuin replaced former Executive Director Bobby Braly, who had served in the position about six years and overseen many historic restoration projects in Cane Hill. Braly's contract had expired. Greer says the executive board decided not to renew Braly's contract, "pure and simple."

For the future, Greer says Historic Cane Hill hopes to do more with the landscape in the area, such as encouraging more people to use the trails. Historic Cane Hill also wants to find more opportunities for people to use the buildings in the community and to form new partnerships with different organizations to increase programs for visitors and groups.

"Vanessa's biggest challenge is going to be how can you partner with other organizations in the area and in the state to make what we have accessible to people," Greer says.

McKuin and her husband now live in Cane Hill with their son, Silas, who she says loves the trails, and a yellow "mutt" named Jack. Her husband, Tim, is a teacher in the Fayetteville School District.

She says they are enjoying the quiet community and have met many of their neighbors.

"You can tell people take a lot of pride in the area," McKuin says. "It's nice to live among that."

McKuin worked for Preserve Arkansas for eight years, a nonprofit group formerly known as Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, and has been development director with KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock.

(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Lynn Kutter)
McKuin worked for Preserve Arkansas for eight years, a nonprofit group formerly known as Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, and has been development director with KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Lynn Kutter)
McKuin and her husband now live in Cane Hill with their son, Silas, who she says loves the trails, and a yellow “mutt” named Jack. Her husband, Tim, is a teacher in the Fayetteville School District.

(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Lynn Kutter)
McKuin and her husband now live in Cane Hill with their son, Silas, who she says loves the trails, and a yellow “mutt” named Jack. Her husband, Tim, is a teacher in the Fayetteville School District. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Lynn Kutter)
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Historic Cane Hill

Visit online at historiccanehill.wixsite.com/canehill. All properties managed by Historic Cane Hill are currently closed due to covid-19 concerns.

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