LINCOLN — A top Obama administration official came to Rhode Island Wednesday offering encouragement to the effort to make the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor part of the National Park System.
After taking a quick walking tour of the bike path from Ashton Mill in Cumberland to the visitor’s center off Route 295, Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar pronounced the area “inspiring and uplifting.” He said of converting the area from the historic Slater Mill in Pawtucket through the mill villages of Ashton in Cumberland and Slatersville in North Smithfield to the Massachusetts villages of Hopedale and Whitinsville: “It is my wish that it happen.”
Making that wish come true could prove difficult in tough budget times, Salazar acknowledged, but he said it could bring economic development and tourism, and the jobs they create, to the area. He allowed that the region has an ace in the hole because Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Interior.
He told a gathering of the volunteer groups that make use of the corridor for bicycling, fishing and other nature-related activities along the corridor, “all the work you have done for 25 years has made you a model of the national heritage areas in the United States of America. People are looking to the leadership of what you have done and what has happened in this bi-state national heritage are and the great work you have done during that time.”
The Department of Interior recently concluded a study of the existing heritage corridor to determine what its future should be and its preferred alternative was a National Historic Par stretching along the length of the Blackstone — once called the nation’s hardest working river because of the mills that located along the river’s banks to take advantage of the water power — from Pawtucket to Worcester.
It will be up to Salazar to make the call on whether the Interior Department will support the national park effort.
“I’m not being pre-decisional here, but I will tell you my absolute instincts are that it does make sense to have a second national park here in Rhode Island, and I think it is about time,” Salazar said to enthusiastic applause. Rhode Island’s other national park site is the Roger Williams National Memorial, a small patch of grass and trees near downtown Providence with a visitors’ center.
Salazar said he hopes to have a recommendation to Congress, “which I expect will be a positive recommendation,” by the end of this year.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose father, the late Sen. John Chafee, championed the heritage corridor that ultimately was named for him, joined the state’s congressional delegation to urge Salazar to support the park.
“I know I’m a biker,” Chafee said. “I like to pop my bike in the back of the pickup and come here to this rest stop, get on the bike path and either go up to Worcester or down to Lonsdale.
“They say that travelers like two things,” the governor added, “history and natural beauty and we have them both here.”
Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and a driving force behind the corridor since its creation, said it was important for Salazar to see the area, and the people who use it, up close.
“I think him looking into the eyes of the people here at the Blackstone said to him, showed him, displayed to him very, very well that there is a community, huge supporters, already on the ground working for 25 years trying to bring the valley together.
“The next step is to preserve this work in perpetuity,” Billington said. He added that the Department of Interior’s preliminary report “was so clear that all the credentials needed to establish a national park are here.”
Billington acknowledged that approval of a national park is not a sure thing. He said “we have to run the gauntlet” of obtaining Congressional funding and to do that residents in the area “have to be a noisy constituency” to help win support.
Nonetheless, he added, “I don’t think it’s a matter of if. I think it is a matter of when. I’m hoping sooner than later.”
Reed noted that there has already been significant investment made in the area.
“We are building on a strong foundation,” the senator said, “we have over the last several years invested $11 million in the corridor and another $7 million in the bikeway. The next logical step in my view is to formalize that by making this part of our national park system. It will provide opportunities for work, opportunities for recreation and it will be a way to forevermore memorialize the history of this wonderful place, the history of the Industrial Revolution.
Asked if creating a national park in Rhode Island is doable considering the country’s deficit and debt problems, Salazar said, “Yes, I think we need to invest in those things that are important. My hope is we will be able to find the resources to make this happen.
“It’s a good enough idea because of jobs,” Salazar told The Times. “There is no question that having a national park here would be part of job creation in the state of Rhode Island.”
He said the start-up if the park will cost about $6 million and the annual operating costs will be about $3 million. Given the size of our budget, this is something we will find a way of accommodating.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said “this is important to Pawtucket, it is important to Rhode Island. We’ve talked about the economic development opportunities, the job opportunities and it connects communities. It brings in dollars, it brings in stature. This is probably one of the highest priorities that my administration and I think the other (municipal) administrations have.”
North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton agreed.
“I have been committed to this since I came to office,” she said. “It seemed like a pipe dream at the time when we were looking to establish a historic district.” That was in Slatersville, where John Slater and his more famous mill-building brother Samuel established the first planned mill village in the nation.
“I’m so psyched,” she enthused. “For us it would be a shot in the arm and an opportunity to protect and preserve the historic value that’s so evident in our town.”
While Salazar was in Rhode Island, he also announced that the federal government is soliciting requests to develop wind farms in the ocean off the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts.