WOONSOCKET – The present and future of Woonsocket’s food economy was heralded on Thursday, as local and state officials joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a walking tour through various locations downtown – from long-standing popular eateries to up-and-coming establishments – to view areas that could be revitalized with a focus on food development opportunities.
The walking tour, which ventured from dilapidated mills along Island Place up Market Square to the Millrace Kitchen, then north along Main Street toward destinations including Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining and Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, served as a kickoff of an effort to promote an expanded food economy in downtown Woonsocket, officials said.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel said the downtown tour would view revitalization areas, with a focus on food development opportunities for brownfield and other underutilized properties.
“As evidence by this beautiful patio we’re standing on, there are exciting things underway in this city when it comes to site redevelopment and investment in the local food economy,” Deziel said from the patio of the Millrace Kitchen.
“New England, as the birthplace of our nation’s Industrial Revolution, has been left with more than its fair share of legacy sites and contaminated properties,” Deziel later said. “We’re committed to seeing old mills, former industrial sites, and other such properties repurposed into the industries and commercial hubs of the next generation. Remediating just one building we’ve learned can have a resounding impact on the community around it – new jobs, new businesses, new educational opportunities, all made possible by people coming together with a shared vision.”
In May, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley of Woonsocket was among 16 communities selected nationwide to receive technical assistance intended to boost economic opportunities for their local food economy while promoting clean air, safe water, open space, and healthy food choices under the Local Food/Local Places program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA.
The Local Food/Local Places project in Woonsocket is also closely aligned with the EPA Smart Sectors Program. Smart Sectors is a partnership program that provides a platform to collaborate with regulated sectors to better protect the environment and public health.
At the end of this month, a multi-day, virtual workshop will be held for downtown Woonsocket. The goals of this workshop, Deziel said, will include leveraging improvements initiated through the city’s Main Street livability plan, cleaning up brownfields, redeveloping defunct mill sites, and putting in place the pieces needed to establish downtown as a “vibrant food hub and center for food entrepreneurs.”
“The Local Food/Local Places project also builds on a host of other federal and state investments in Woonsocket, including $3.1 million in brownfield grants to help clean up 31 sites across the city,” Deziel said. “During today’s tour, we’ll pass through six different properties that have already benefited from brownfield funding, including three sites in Woonsocket’s downtown opportunity zone, where $800,000 in federal cleanup grants have been awarded in the past three years.”
Participating in the walking tour was Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit. She said that people want to buy local and support their local farmers and fishermen, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So we feel like amidst this very difficult time, there is opportunity to actually strengthen local food businesses and increase the production of locally-grown, locally-harvested, locally-landed fish and food in Rhode Island,” Coit said. “I love the way that you’re combining remediation, redevelopment, with supporting local food initiatives.”
“This idea of combining redevelopment and remediation projects in places that are so central to quality of life and the well-being, the economic development in your city, and then promoting food-related businesses and a vibrant food economy, it just brings together two things that are part of DEM’s mission and so important to people who live in this city,” Coit added.
DEM Chief of Agriculture Ken Ayars noted that trying to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 made him think about the larger food system.
“On average, it takes about 3,000 miles of travel to get food to where it’s consumed,” Ayars said. “Much of our food still comes from the west coast of the United States or from South America. We’re the end of a long, long pipeline and from a resiliency standpoint, we think about the shock of COVID. Having a stable, resilient food system is so important, it’s not something we can ignore going forward.”
“A project like this has the design of a better future and what our food system will be in the future, it needs to be far more locally-based and far more resilient than it has been in the past,” he said.
Woonsocket Interim Director of Economic Development Scott Gibbs celebrated the city, saying: “There’s a lot of things going on here, a lot. I don’t think people in the state truly appreciate in general how dynamic this city is and where it’s going right now.”
“The foundation to the economic development plan is human capital, everything’s got to be built around human capital. That means affordable housing, that means food, and that’s what downtown’s got to be all about. In fact, there’s so many things that are already happening…” Gibbs said. “If you put everything together that’s happening on Main Street, you’ll be amazed. This city, I think, is moving much quicker than most other cities are happening right now in Rhode Island, and I think it’s because of years of very, very hard work.”
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