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Finding Your Economy’s Hidden Treasure

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For the last three issues, this column has explored the first steps local planning commissioners can take to start to address the economic crisis so many communities are facing. This has included the most important step — recognizing that you can act to improve your local economy. Once you make the decision to take action, you recruit the stakeholders who need to be involved in the project. The last column described how to identify and categorize the assets you have.

After you have a clear picture of the assets in your community, you’ll need to find ways your community can use them to create new jobs and opportunities. For example, your asset inventory might include historic and cultural resources in a part of the city you have always thought of as the “wrong side of the tracks.” Old buildings — factories, 18th and 19th century housing, landmarks, and unique cultural enclaves — all offer possibilities for redevelopment.

For example, in the Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island, places like Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket were old mill towns that had lost their major employers — the mills, blast furnaces, and forges — when they moved out of New England in the early part of the 20th century.

The Blackstone River, once known as “the hardest working river inAmerica” because of its role in powering the industrial growth of the region became a backwater, with towns whose new claim to fame was some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. The old, crumbling mills were eyesores, the river smelled like a cesspool, and the neighborhoods grew more distressed as unemployment became the norm.

As suburbanization spread in the latter part of the 20th century, the Blackstone Valley relics of the industrial age seemed doomed for the wrecking ball. Then, in 1986, people who were concerned about the loss of these important historic resources worked to get Congress to create the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor, the second of its type in the country. The corridor included 46 miles of river, 20 towns, and two states (Rhode Island and Massachusetts). With stricter environmental controls, the cleaned-up river drove the new phase of tourist and cultural development as riverboat tours, parks, new museums made from the old mills, and a long bike path became the new attractions.

Now the Blackstone Valley is home to artists and a cultural economy that consistently is ranked as one of the top tourist destinations in Rhode Island, a state where Newport, Block Island, Watch Hill, and the beaches provide ample competition. The historic preservation advocates of the 1980s had a vision that saw beyond the deterioration and blight and recognized the hidden treasure in the wreckage of the industrial age. They turned their liabilities into real assets.

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