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Worcester’s Canal District Banks On National Park Designation

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


A 2003 artist's rendering of Worcester's proposed Blackstone Canal District, which many of the city's business and political leaders say would boost tourism in the city and help revitalize its struggling economy.

John Giangregorio, chair of Worcester’s Canal District Business Association, may be a visionary dreamer. But the owner-operator of Three Gs Sportsbar on Millbury Street is also a practical, down-to-earth businessman.

A decade ago, a group of Worcester business and political leaders, including Giangregorio, began promoting either a Providence-like opening and restoration or a reflecting-pool-like replication of the Blackstone Canal, from Union Station south to Kelley Square.

These days, they are also pushing for passage of federal legislation to create a Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, which will overlay the boundaries of the existing Heritage Corridor.

Unlike the Heritage Corridor, the Historical Park would be an annual line item in the National Parks Service budget. With a regular revenue stream, the Historical Park would be better able to, among other things, help realize the long-awaited canal restoration/replication vision.

Giangregorio acknowledges that the proposed $20-million plan to either restore or replicate the northern-most portion of the nearly 200-year-old Blackstone Canal “is complex and will cost money.” But a 10-year-old cost/benefit analysis of only a replication, he adds, demonstrates that even that sort of project “will greatly benefit” Worcester and the rest of the region as “a proven economic-development tool.”

The canal project, Giangregorio observes, will also “help to rebrand the city, contributing a ‘wow’ factor, a raison d’être,” to help attract businesses to locate and expand in Worcester. The restored/replicated canal, when connected to the opportunities resulting from the proposed Historical Park, he adds, will create a Worcester destination that attracts 50,000 new visitors annually to the city, “reinforcing the Canal District as a destination neighborhood.” This activity, he adds, “supports the current downtown initiatives and healthy-city goals as a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly city.”

It is ironic that many of Greater Worcester’s leading citizens envision a 19th-century form of commercial and passenger transportation between Worcester and Providence as a vital component of the city’s long, slow march into the 21st century. Yet it is also quite fitting.

Continues to spark imaginations

John Giangregorio,chair of the Canal District Business Association, thinks Tim Murray's Chamber of Commerce is on the right track for expanding tourism in Worcester, including the Canal District, where he's shown posing along Water Street.

The Blackstone Canal was conceived by businessmen in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the beginning of the 1800s. They envisioned it as a way to connect Worcester and the Blackstone Valley towns to Providence and the sea at Narragansett Bay.

Over the course of its 20-year history until 1848, according to a Canal District of Worcester history, the Blackstone Canal helped to spur commerce and development within the city and throughout the Valley, which became known as “the birthplace of the American industrial revolution.” After the canal ceased operations in 1848, due to the advent of the railroads - it remained open as a waterway, becoming increasingly used as a sewer until it was arched over and forgotten in the 1890s. During the latter portion of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, the area formerly bisected by the canal became a thriving mixed-use and multi-ethnic neighborhood based on the Eastern European immigration of that period.

By the latter part of the 20th century, the CDW history notes, Worcester’s canal area had lapsed into a long decline. The construction of I-290 destroyed a huge swath of housing to the east and largely cut off access from Grafton and Vernon hills. The Jewish population had prospered and moved to the city's West Side. And Union Station, which had once boasted 162 trains per day, had closed and fallen into disrepair.

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the CDW history recounts, the area has seen substantial rebirth as an entertainment district, now populated with about two dozen new bars, restaurants and clubs. Enclaves of retail activity are also being established, and some of the larger buildings are being converted to residential use. Now referred to as the Canal District, the area is a popular night-time and weekend destination and is widely acknowledged to be the city's most actively developing neighborhood. Recent streetscape improvements throughout the Canal District are reinforcing this progress, and the proposed restoration/replication of the Blackstone Canal continues to spark imaginations throughout the city.

Worcester’s Canal District is now served by an active Canal District Alliance. In recent years the District has hosted the annual Blackstone Canalfest - the next one is set for September 7 - as well several other tourist-attracting, community-building events. On June 2, a stART on the Street festival was held there – attracting about 20,000 people.

Focus on job creation

The 2003 Blackstone Canal District Feasibility Study projected a sunny outlook for the area as a result of only a reflecting-pool-like replication of the canal, from Union Station south to Kelley Square.

As more people have rediscovered Worcester’s canal heritage and history, popular support for either restoring or replicating the Blackstone Canal has continued to grow. While the Great Recession ran the project aground for a few years, the hoped-for passage of the Historical Park bill is breathing new life into the romantic vision to “free to Blackstone” and the economic goal to bring Worcester into the 21st century.

Giangregorio, of the Canal District Business Association, also sits on the boards of Preservation Worcester and the Central Mass. Convention and Visitor Bureau and is a representative for the Canal District on the Mayor's Small Business Roundtable. He lists five key economic benefits that the long-awaited canal restoration/replication will create for Worcester, according to the 2003 feasibility study:

• 680 construction jobs, with a projected payroll of $34 million
• 350 permanent office and retails jobs
• $44 million worth of new real-estate development
• 550,000 square feet of new construction, valued at $70 million
• $2 million in new, direct annual city tax revenue

Giangregorio regards the Blackstone Canal project as a good opportunity for Worcester to also address and resolve a major problem - its aging sewer and water infrastructure, some of which is 100 years old – by doing the following:

• Adopting new regulations for sewage and street run-off
• Increasing the city's capacity for sewage and water transit
• Reducing sewer backups in the city
• Bring the aging sewage system into compliance with current public-health regulations

The non-profit Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Inc. would manage the existing Heritage Corridor while the National Park Service would manage the proposed Historical Park, with the two entities working together as partner. Presently, the Heritage Corridor is managed by the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor Commission, which would be phased out. Pending federal legislation to create the Historical Park would make the entire length of the Blackstone River part of the park. Donna Williams, chair of both Heritage Corridor Inc. and the Heritage Corridor Commission, testified last month before a House subcommittee regarding the bill. She hopes the full House will approve the bill, as the full Senate has already done. “But Congress is so dysfunctional,” she adds. “Who knows what will happen.”

Three years ago, Worcester did manage to land $7.5 million in federal funding to make streetscape improvements, including street lights, outdoor benches and bike paths, along Green, Millbury and Water and Green streets and a section of Harding Street.

Another $750,000 in federal funding has been earmarked for streetscape upgrades along the rest of Harding Street.

The Canal District Alliance is now calling on City Hall to seek federal funding for a feasibility study on opening and restoring the Blackstone Canal from Union Station to Kelley Square. Giangregorio thinks Worcester needs to do a better job in two key areas: securing additional state and federal funding for additional infrastructure work in both the Canal District and the neighboring Downtown area; and growing and expanding the city's overall business property-tax base.

The City of Boston, Giangregorio points out, has a 350-staff-member Redevelopment Authority, while Worcester’s Redevelopment Authority has been moribund for many years, since the completion of the Worcester Medical City and Union Station. The WRA is staffed by the City of Worcester, with Chief Development Officer Tim McGourthy serving as the CEO, supported by staff from the City Solicitor’s Office, the Budget Office, the Department of Public Works and Parks, and the state Executive Office of Economic Development.

“There’s such a huge difference in the approach that two different cities take to economic development,” Giangregorio says. The solution in Worcester, he says, is for City Hall, working in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, to “focus on job creation.” Over the course of 2011, an average of about 97,000 people was employed in Worcester, a decrease of more than 4 percent in a decade, according to the Mass. Department of Workforce Development.

“If there’s a magic bullet [for Worcester],” it’s jobs,” Giangregorio says. Yet job creation does not appear to be a top agenda item for the City Council, he points out. “The voters keep reelecting the City Council,” he says. “They must be satisfied with them.”

Of course, voter turnout for final City Council elections is only around 20 percent – much lower, for preliminary elections - and that doesn’t include the people who are eligible to, but do not, register to vote. Only a few short decades ago, voter turnout of 35 to 40 percent was considered decent. Now, it ranges between 20 and 25 percent.

Tim Murray on right track

Tim Murray has been in the driver's seat at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce for only three months. Yet he is already revving up the long-stalled business organization to once again be the region's economic-development engine.

The Chamber’s goal is to raise $1.2 million over the next few months, to recruit, retain and incubate biomedical firms, including high-tech manufacturers – those using high-tech equipment such as robotics to make products such as medical devices - in Greater Worcester. Initial plans include identifying companies in sectors of the economy that play to our region’s strengths. As such, the Chamber will focus recruitment efforts on specific industry sectors as well as the developer community.

As Murray told GoLocalWorcester in early July, “We’re going to be engaged in that [sort of activity], but primarily we’re going to be working with [the WBDC and City Hall] on focusing on [business] recruitment [by] telling the Central Mass. value proposition to businesses, companies and trade associations in Massachusetts, in New England, across the nation – where we have good information – and maybe even across the globe.”

Statewide, tourism generates almost $1 billion in state and local taxes and nearly $17 billion in travel-related expenditures, supporting about125,000 in-state jobs, according to the Mass. Office of Travel and Tourism. Referring to a Blackstone Canal restoration or replication and the tourists that it will attract, Giangregorio calls on Worcester to focus on tourism as one significant way to create new jobs within city boundaries. “I don’t think the city [government] is organized in a manner to explore that segment,” he says, adding, “I think Tim [Murray] is on the right track.”

Murray has what Giangregorio calls “the experience and the know-how to make [the latter] happen. I think our city-manager style of government isn’t very good at encouraging initiatives and encouraging economic growth. They seem to look outside of City Hall for organizations to do that,” such as the Worcester Business Development Corp. and Mass. Biomedical Initiatives.

Giangregorio doesn’t harbor the notion that a Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park will attract as many tourists as Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, which now records 300,000 visits a year and seeks to increase that to 450,000 by 2016. But he says, “If we could just attract 10 percent” of the amount of current annual Harbor Islands visits to the Valley and Worcester, “think of what a big push that would be for our local economy.”

Listen to Steven Jones-D’Agostino’s recent, 29-minute interview with John Giangregorio regarding the Blackstone Canal and River, which aired this past Sunday on 90.5 WICN.

Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.


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