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Interview: Mark McDonald
Longtime HSF head takes new position in Atlanta
Mark McDonald

PRESERVATIONISTS IN SAVANNAH are losing an ally. Mark C. McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation, will become president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation on June 1.

“After conducting a nationwide search, it is clear that Mark McDonald is the perfect choice to lead the Georgia Trust,” says Mike Starr, chairman of the Georgia Trust’s board of trustees. “Mark brings a combination of strong business experience in the non-profit field and over 25 years of professional involvement in historic preservation.”

McDonald came to Savannah in 1998. Before that, he was the executive director of the Mobile Historic Development Commission in Mobile, Ala., and even earlier, the Historic Salisbury Foundation in North Carolina.

In the last 10 years, the HSF has advocated quality urban design, sometimes locking horns with city and county officials over preservation issues. Nearly 75 endangered properties have been sold through its revolving fund program, which has grown in capital from $30,000 to about $1 million.

Leaving Savannah will be hard, but he’ll be back, McDonald says. “I’m like MacArthur -- I will return,” he says.

His duties at the Georgia Trust will be similar to his duties in Savannah -- except they’ll involve a statewide preservation effort rather than a citywide one. McDonald has seen many changes in Savannah over the past 10 years.

“The most positive change is that the concept of historic preservation has grown in area and goes all the way out to 52nd Street,” he says. “I think people are beginning to see historic Savannah as something much larger than the early 19th century downtown, which takes in more diverse groups of people and different architectural styles.

“What has not changed is the market downtown,” McDonald says. “It’s still so expensive that people who work in Savannah in regular jobs can’t really afford to live downtown.

“It’s not as real of a place as it was even 10 years ago,” he says. “We have more condos, more tourism, less normal people.”

One of McDonald’s proudest achievements is the HSF project in the Lincoln Street area. “We’ve tried to integrate low-income housing and historic preservation,” he says.

“That was the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. It’s very difficult to do because construction costs are so high.

“It’s hard to build houses that are architecturally compatible and keep them on a budget, so that low and moderate income people can afford them,” McDonald says. “Because we’ve been able to accomplish it, it’s great to see a neighborhood that was completely dead coming back with a diverse population.”

McDonald has some advice for his successor. “Stay true to your principals,” he says. “Involve as many people in the movement as possible. Historic Savannah has almost 2,500 members and hundreds of volunteers.”

As the news about McDonald’s pending departure has spread, he’s been widely congratulated. “Everyone’s been very kind,” he says. “They’ve encouraged me to keep up the good fight.”

Savannah is unique, McDonald says. “What I’m going to miss most is being able to live in a walkable environment,” he says. “This is a place where you can literally do without a car.

“I’ll miss the extreme physical beauty of the city,” McDonald says. “I will return because Savannah is the most historically significant city in Georgia.

“It would be a crime if I let Savannah deteriorate and didn’t allow the Savannah Historic Foundation to continue to be a strong voice,” he says. “I will be available to bring the strengths of the Georgia Trust to Savannah.”

Other Georgia communities’ preservations issues are different than those in Savannah, McDonald says. “Most don’t have the pressure of downtown development,” he says. “They’re trying to encourage new investment and growth. While they’re trying to encourage, in Savannah, we’re trying to manage change so it will be compatible with what we have.”

The HSF board has the difficult task of finding someone to replace McDonald. “Mark has set a high standard as our executive director and we will miss him greatly,” says W. John Mitchell, president and chairman of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

“At the same time, we’re glad for him and wish him all the best,” Mitchell says. “Our executive committee has already met to strategize about filling his shoes, as big as they are, and we will do so as soon as possible – but selectively.”