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Parks advocate headlines preservation summit

April 21, 2012

Dr. Stephanie Toothman

WOONSOCKET – Even if just a handful of noteworthy sites in the sprawling Blackstone River Heritage Corridor became part of the national park system, as the government recommends, the possibilities for promoting tourism-based economic development throughout the whole region would be greatly enhanced, a top National Park Service official says.
“If a national park is created, it’s not going to include all the Valley or the corridor but it will affect all the Valley and its communities,” according to Dr. Stephanie Toothman, associate director of cultural resources for the NPS. “National parks do have a significant positive impact on surrounding communities.”
Toothman was to address the NPS’s recommendations during a keynote speech at the 27th Annual Statewide Preservation Conference at the Stadium Theatre today. Though the 9 a.m. lecture is free, hundreds of municipal planners, history buffs, architects and other professionals from around the state are expected to attend the day-long, $40 per person event, which is to focus heavily on the national park proposal this season.
Participants in the biggest symposium on historic preservation of the year will tour five sites the NPS wants to include as “units” of the federal park system. They include Slater Mill in Pawtucket, often dubbed the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, an epoch which marked a sea change in the very nature of American society.
Also on the list is the village of Slatersville in North Smithfield, a place some call the first community planned around a mill; Ashton Village in Cumberland, another mill enclave with a striking collection of brick row houses built for workers; the village of Whitinsville, in Northbridge, Mass.; home of the vast Whitin Machine complex and a unique collection of stately, granite mills; and the entire town of Hopedale, Mass., conceived as a sort of worker’s utopia by its dominant employer, the Draper Corporation..
Created by Congress is 1986, the heritage corridor, headquartered in Woonsocket, includes some two dozens cities and towns hugging the Blackstone River, from Pawtucket to Worcester, Mass. The corridor’s federal commission is slated to sunset by 2013, which basically means there may no longer be any more federal dollars left to support it after that point.
A bill is pending in Congress to move the five sites under the umbrella of the National Park Service, or at least partly under it.
In a phone interview from her office in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, Toothman said the NPS is asking federal lawmakers to preserve the corridor’s federal charter until they act on the proposed bill.
Although the legislation envisions no new unit of the park service in Woonsocket, the measure does call for the others to be managed out of a city-based headquarters, she said.
One of the key points Toothman wants to make in her keynote speech is that even if certain features of the corridor morph into parts of the national park system, the transformation will be something less than a total federal takeover. If they are absorbed by the park service, the federal government will share control, management and funding of these sites in partnership with state and local agencies.
“We see it as a continuing collaborative relationship evolving if the park is created, a continuation of the working relationship we already have now,” she said.
The corridor – officially known as the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor – was one among the first of a new breed of national parks known as “heritage areas” when it was originally commissioned. They’re not contiguous parks with traditional boundaries like Yosemite or Yellowstone, but diverse collections of cultural, recreational and natural resources that can span many communities.
Like the Blackstone River corridor, federal charters for many of these areas (there are 49 in all) are about to lapse, or they have already. But those heritage areas don’t simply evaporate when that happens. The only thing that disappears is the federal support for them.
“The only thing in jeopardy right now is whether they’re eligible to compete for federal funding,” said Toothman. “All of our heritage areas have been very resourceful in moving toward some level of self-sufficiency.”
The corridor employs a relatively small contingent of park rangers who serve as tourguides, researchers and emissaries for the heritage areas. Toothman said if the national park service partners with the commission in running Slater Mill and other sites as arms of the park service, more park rangers will probably be hired.
But the ability to promote the new parks as tourist destinations offers communities, perhaps, the most exciting opportunities for economic development.
“Designation as a national park is really the highest level of recognition, so I think that’s a benefit as well,” said Toothman. “If you look at the relationship between gateway communities and the parks, that’s very much a part of their promotional strategy. There are people from all over the world who when they’re traveling look to see where the national parks are.”
A native of Sudbury, Mass., Toothman spent much of her career on the West Coast before being promoted to the Department of the Interior’s headquarters in the nation’s capital several years ago. She was slated to take her first tour of the Blackstone River Heritage Corridor on Friday, accompanied by Jan Reitsma, its executive director, and Ted Sanderson, the director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.
“I’m looking forward to it because the Blackstone corridor has been one of the iconic examples of our heritage areas,” she said. “It was one of the first.”

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