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Blackstone Valley Story

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A place is more than a chunk of real estate or a dot on a map. Without culture, lore, history, and natural beauty a place doesn't really exist. It's nowhere.

The Blackstone Valley has all that in spades. Only there was a time when people seemed to forget, even some people who called the Valley home. A few decades ago, you could say the region was suffering a hangover, the result of a long party called the Industrial Revolution. The mills that once employed so many stood vacant, the jobs shipped overseas. The Blackstone River, the power source for the factories, was polluted by the waste they had produced and choked with litter and trash. Downtowns turned to ghost towns as residents moved to the suburbs and did their shopping at malls that looked exactly like the malls in Minnesota and California and everywhere else in America.

All that took an economic toll. For a long time the Blackstone Valley struggled with unemployment numbers well above those found in nearby Greater Boston or Providence. Worse, it became anonymous, a place you travel through on the way to someplace else.

And that's what gave birth to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. A handful of true believers, led by Bob Billington, the agency's founder and long time director, set out to change the region's future by inviting tourists to come visit. At the same time, they hoped to renew a sense of pride among those who call the region home. They wanted folks to remember the struggles and triumphs of their immigrant grandparents who worked the mills, to once again see the river as a rushing, roaring, natural waterway, and to see the region's farms as something more than future space for more sprawl.

"We wanted to let the world know what the Blackstone Valley is all about," says David Balfour, who chairs the tourism council's board of directors.


Any history professor worth is tweed coat can tell you about the Valley and the crucial role the region played in America's growth. In 1790 a British engineer named Samuel Slater stepped onto a dock in Providence. He carried in his head the plans necessary for building a hydro-powered textile mill. Writing down those details would have been dangerous, because Britain -- the only nation with such factories -- had made it a crime to take the technology out of the country.

The young man had no trouble finding backers and partners. By 1793 they had a mill up and running at Pawtucket Falls, with machines turning out cloth around the clock. Soon there were hundreds more like it up and down the river, from Worcester to Providence, all powered by the force of its fast-moving waters. Immigrants came to provide the labor, thousands and then tens of thousands every year, settling into company housing around the factories. The bulk of them were French Canadians from Quebec Province, but there were newcomers from all over the world.

The Blackstone Valley helped make America the world’s industrial powerhouse for a century and a half. By the mid-1900s, however, the glory was fading fast. Looking to exploit cheaper labor, mill owners moved their operations south or abroad. When World War II ended, so did the last great production push, and the Blackstone Valley began to sag.


When Bob Billington launched the tourism council back in 1985, the Reagan go-go years were in full swing, but somehow the Valley got left out. There were jobs aplenty in the Boston suburbs, but that could be an hour's drive for some area residents. Nonetheless, necessity pushed many to make the long commute.

At that time Billington was working at his family's giftware business. Ever the organizer, he'd convinced other manufacturers in the area to form an association of factory outlet retailers. They put out a brochure and spent some cash on advertising, and before long, shoppers began showing up. When Billington found himself fielding questions from the visitors about restaurants and Rhode Island attractions, the light bulb flashed on again: Promoting the Blackstone Valley as a destination could be a real boon to the region's sluggish economy. He talked with some friends and some movers and shakers, and the tourism council was born, right on the kitchen table of his Cumberland home.

The Rhode Island Division of Tourism offered a matching grant to get the enterprise up and running, but with the stipulation that local communities kick in the same amount. That sent Billington on a rambling quest through Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Burrillville, Cumberland, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Glocester, Lincoln, and Central Falls.

In the months that followed, he spoke to more than a hundred groups, from Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis to church groups and town boards. Everywhere, the response was the same: snickers, guffaws, sometimes even belly laughs. Locals couldn't believe anyone would go out of their way to visit their humdrum hometowns. "A host would introduce you, and every time there would be a chuckle in the back of the room," recalls Billington.

The night he made a pitch to the North Smithfield Town Council still sticks in his mind. "They told me, There's no tourism here. And they threw me out," he says. "They threw me out."

But within a few days Town Council member Ken Bianchi rang him up. He worked for the state's Department of Economic Development, and he'd discussed Billington's sales pitch with folks in his office. They'd all agreed the effort sounded worthwhile. He encouraged the young man to talk with town officials again.

So Billington went back. And they gave him the money.


Soon a board of directors formed, and in the fall of 1986 they hired Billington as the fulltime director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Of course, they had no idea how he'd get paid. Getting money to run the operation was his job.

As a father with two small kids and a mailbox that kept filling up with monthly bills, he knew he had to hustle. The freshly-passed state tax on hotel rooms provided some money for tourism groups, but for several years that amounted to no more than a few hundred dollars. Eventually he wrangled $10,000 in job-training funds from the Rhode Island Department of Employment and Training, money set aside to assist Vietnam-era veterans. As a former Coast Guardsman, he qualified.

In those early years Billington found that rallying support sometimes remained an uphill battle. When he showed his face at meetings of the governor's advisory council on tourism, some members from the state's beach towns were bemused. They dismissed his efforts as a lost cause. And when Billington surveyed members of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, none showed any interest in tourism.

The big boosters proved to be corporations and businesses that saw no direct gain from bringing tourists to the region, companies like Amica Insurance, Fidelity Investments, and Credit Union Central Falls. "These
people were convinced that first and foremost tourism is good for the community," Billington says. "The primary beneficiary is the local community. Look at the bike path, for example. The primary benefit is to
local people who can go there everyday."

Billington also gives a nod to Rick Alger, former mayor of Cumberland, who helped the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council win recognition as a non-profit educational corporation, a designation that made the organization eligible for certain grants.


Fortunately, there were others with the same goals and the same drive.

When the environmental movement first swept the country in the early 1970s, many local activists looked to their own backyard. With help from the National Guard, they organized clean-ups of the Blackstone in both northern Rhode Island and central Massachusetts. Over the years volunteers have hauled many tons of garbage from the river’s shores.

And in 1985, Rhode Island Senator John Chaffee authored legislation to create the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor, which follows the river in two states. That brought the National Park Service to region to help the states, the municipalities, and non-profit groups establish parks, museums, and bike paths. Ask almost anyone involved in civic affairs, and you’ll hear how over the past 25 years the Corridor has strived mightily to bring about a change of direction in the Valley.


Northern Rhode Island has no mountains, no ocean beaches. Nothing in the Blackstone Valley is the biggest, the highest, the oldest, or superlative in any other way. The Valley's got history, to be sure, but the same can be said of every town and city in New England. As Billington and his colleagues discovered, it's the once-shunned Blackstone River that makes the region a unique destination. Get a bunch of school kids off their bus and put them on a riverboat, and their field trip becomes something more. It’s an adventure.

The council's first watercraft was the Blackstone Valley Tourism One, a 16-foot inflatable raft secured through Navy surplus. In 1989 Billington invited news reporters and public officials to climb aboard for tours that revealed the river was on the way to becoming a surprisingly beautiful urban wilderness.

A year later Warren boat builder Luther Blount leased the tourism council a glass-bottom water bus originally built for tourist trips in tropical climes. Cynics suggested those who traveled the Blackstone would have a great view of sunken shopping carts and discarded automotive parts. But the river tours -- launched near School Street in Pawtucket -- proved to be a huge success. Busy weekends saw more than 300 people clamber aboard for river trips. More access landings were added in Central Falls, Cumberland, Woonsocket, and Uxbridge.

That success prompted the tourism council to launch a fundraising campaign with the goal of buying a riverboat of their own. In 1993 the 49-passenger Blackstone Valley Explorer began plying the waters. As of 2010, more than 300,000 visitors have experienced the river tour.

"The riverboat was never a moneymaker," says Billington. "It's a place-maker, an image-maker for the Valley. The Explorer really made our reputation. I've always called it 'the Convincer.' We've taken everybody on that boat -- our mayors and town administrators, all the members of the congressional delegation, the US secretary of the interior, everyone. It convinces them the river has something to offer."

To mark the new millennium, the tourism council took up another fundraising drive to buy yet another vessel, an English canal boat dubbed the Samuel Slater, the only one of its kind in the country. It's a covered water craft that can be used for tea tours, corporate charters, birthday cruises, and even as a floating bed and breakfast. "Imagine," says Billington, "people are staying overnight on the Blackstone River."

The tourism council's efforts have also inspired people to explore the river and its tributaries on their own. On any warm and sunny weekend afternoon there’s no shortage of visitors paddling along in kayaks and canoes, frequently using routes developed and promoted by the tourism council. And you'll see fishermen casting lines into the current as well. The area's waterways now teem with wildlife. Birdwatchers spot hawks, blue herons, mergansers, wood ducks, and mallards, all once rarely seen in the region. Deer sometimes wander along the shore. In the early morning you might see a raccoon at the water’s edge washing a soon-to-be-devoured crayfish.

Pollution and litter have not entirely disappeared, but neither have the volunteers and the agencies that are committed to making the watershed a more pristine place. Through the years the tourism council has worked with a hundred organizations on clean-up efforts. During one notable campaign, the Great American Clean-up of 2003, a group effort resulted in the removal of 3,000 old tires from the river's shores.


Visitors also explore the region by land, of course. In the early years the tourism council developed motor coach tours, and got Conway Bus Service and other companies to run them. For a time they were popular with senior citizens groups, but there was less interest once reservation casinos opened in Connecticut.

Other ventures also met with up-and-down success. A one point the tourism council purchased a British model double-decker bus to take visitors to the sites. The tours were a hit, but unfortunately the high cost of
insurance put a stop to the effort. The Blackstone Valley Trolley was, however, a huge success, running profitably with the help of Conway Tours for nearly a decade. Several years ago the council sold the vehicle, for about the same amount as the purchase price.

Trips aboard the Providence & Worcester Railroad have won a following. Residents and visitors alike board passenger cars for fall foliage tours and Christmas excursions inspired by Rhode Island author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg's Polar Express. The tourism council also created self-guided tour brochures and maps -- dubbed DeTours -- for those who prefer to explore by car or bike. Cyclists can peddle along more than ten miles of scenic bike paths that follow the river from the Valley Falls section of Cumberland to Hamlet Avenue in Woonsocket.


As word spread about the Valley as a tourist destination, some distinguished visitors found their way to the region. They've included the mayor of Belper, England, and other dignitaries from his city, which was the center of that country's 18th-century textile industry. The visitors indicated they had forgiven runaway son Samuel Slater. And in 1994 President Bill Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton dropped by to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Slater's Mill. Billington visited the White House as well, to discuss tourism and economic development with the president. Congressman Patrick Kennedy helped arrange the tête-à-tête.

Along the way Billington found time to earn a doctorate degree in tourism development from Johnson & Wales University. Today he and others at the BVTC are using their expertise to promote a new economic concept -- Sustainable Tourism -- that encourages development of the hospitality industry while respecting local culture and the environment. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council is now part of the Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance, an organization established by the United Nations.


A history of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council would not be complete without a look at the towns and cities along the river. Let's take a little ride.

In Woonsocket, many credit the tourism council with encouraging residents to open the Museum of Work and Culture, where visitors and locals alike learn about the trials and successes of immigrant mill workers. "Back when I was teaching history at Woonsocket High School, Bob Billington used to come by to ask us about materials that could be used in tours," recalls Ray Bacon, now the museum's co-director. "When the city and the Rhode Island Historical Society established the museum back in 1987, he was very much involved."

In North Smithfield, Ruth Pacheco recalls how the tourism council helped brain storm activities that boost community spirit. "We were looking for a unique way to celebrate New Year 2000," says the owner of Hi-on-a-Hill Herb Farm. "Bob Billington suggested a town-wide photograph. We rang the old mill bell at precisely 12 noon, and several hundred people gathered on the steps of the Congregational Church. The Fire Department brought in their boom to lift up Christine Keene so she could take the shot."

In Burrillville, Town Planner Tom Kravitz raves about the tourism council's Culinaria Food Tours, which take visitors to an area restaurant -- like Thai Time in his town -- to enjoy a meal and learn something about the region's rich ethnic diversity. "They've certainly had a positive influence here," Kravitz says. "And not only with restaurant promotions. They've done a lot to call attention to the walking trails we've developed in Pascoag and other areas of town."

Glocester business woman Rose LaVoie, formerly owner of The Purple Cat Restaurant, thanks the council for bringing crowds of visitors to town and directing them to local establishments. "They've had farm tours and they've brought folks to Brown & Hopkins, our country store and the nation's oldest," she says. “They've done wonders for the state's northeast corner, which otherwise always seems to be ignored."

In Smithfield, folks talk about the BVTC’s work to promote the Smith-Applybee House Museum, one of the few 17th-century stone-ender homes left in the region. "They've brought busloads of visitors here," says Maggie Botelho, the museum's treasurer. "We're mainly a volunteer organization, so their efforts are a big plus."

In Lincoln, the tourism council is a top promoter of Hearthside Homestead, a 19th-century stone mansion turned museum and one of the state's architectural treasures. "The council put together a self-guided tour -- the Great Road DeTour -- that's really made this a destination," says Kathy Hartley, president of Friends of Hearthside. "And they've included us in many of their bus tours. We would never have grown so quickly without their help."

In Central Falls, state Senator Betty Crowley points out how the tourism council is reminding people there's more to their community than bricks and pavement. "The Sunday afternoon river tour on the Explorer is a great trip," she says. "They take you to areas that almost seem like wilderness. You see birds and wildlife and for awhile you forget you're surrounded by a city."

Mike Cassidy, recently retired as Pawtucket's city planner, has followed the council's efforts since day one. "I remember how people laughed when Bob Billington said he was going to put a boat on the river," he recalls. "Now it's a huge success. And it's done a lot to get people concerned about restoration of the river."

In Cumberland, folks are excited about plans to revitalize Broad Street, a three-mile thoroughfare that also extends into Pawtucket and Central Falls. The tourism council has teamed up with a number of organizations to boost businesses, add landscaping, and hold public celebrations and events.

It's just one way the BVTC has helped the region's economy grow, says David Balfour, a lifelong Cumberland resident. "Tourism was once something this area ignored, but it's no longer forgotten," he says. "It's a major industry. And don't let anyone tell you the jobs generated are just flipping burgers. A hotel manager making a hundred thousand a year is part of the tourism industry, too."

And he's quick to point out that the economic benefits stretch way beyond luring visitors to the region. Rhode Island is working hard to develop a new economy, based on such industries as financial services, health care, high technology, and biotechnology. The Knowledge Economy, planners call it. To bring those companies to the state, executive must be convinced this is a location where educated, affluent employees would want to call home. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and its partners have transformed the region into exactly that sort of place.

"Do you think for a minute," Balfour asks, "that a major company would ask their employees to live here if it was not the kind of place they'd want to visit? Would a company like Fidelity move here, and ask their workers to move, if the Blackstone were still a dirty, polluted river? I don't think so."

There's still more work to do, of course. Some communities in the region still struggle with poverty, environmental degradation, and other issues. And the current recession has hit Rhode Island hard. But over the past 25 years enormous progress has been made, and over the next 25 years, it will continue.

"The Tourism Council works to redevelop the Blackstone Valley as a great place to work, visit, and live," Billington says. "And I think we're achieving that goal."

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