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Hope floats; Canalfest 2014 celebrates vision of reviving Blackstone Canal.

Byline: Richard Duckett

Blackstone Canalfest

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 6

Where: Harding Street at Kelley Square, Worcester

How much: Free

WORCESTER -- The ninth annual Blackstone Canalfest Sept. 6 will include a 75-foot-long water-filled replica of the canal in which people can kayak.

Could there be a day when a festival actually takes place by a watercourse replication of the Blackstone Canal that winds its way from Union Station to Kelley Square?

That's the goal of the Canal District Alliance Inc., which also organizes Canalfest. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 6 on Harding Street at Kelley Square. The Blackstone Canal once flowed along what is now Harding Street and is still there, underground.

Above ground Saturday there will be a free street festival complete with music, entertainment, vendors, food, an abundance of kids' activities, horse-and-wagon rides, current canal project information, and more.

The flow of things can change back and forth and back again.

A marvel of engineering, the Blackstone Canal opened in 1828 as a cargo waterway to the sea connecting Worcester to Providence. But it had a relatively brief heyday, as the advent of the railroad (the first railway line between Boston and Worcester opened in 1835) made canals obsolete. The canal was covered over in the 1890s and was largely forgotten until interest started to revive with the dawn of a new century. The Canal District Alliance was formed about 11 years ago. The recent state Environmental Bond Bill signed by Gov. Deval Patrick has $3 million to fund a feasibility study and design work to see how uncovering the Blackstone Canal would work.

Canalfest takes place in an area -- including Harding, Green and Water streets -- that, to put it kindly, might not have seemed auspicious for much cultural activity a few years ago despite an interesting past. But now in 2014 it is known proudly as the Canal District. About 7,500 people attended last year's Canalfest.

We asked Allen W. Fletcher, a board member of the Canal District Alliance and co-chairman of Canalfest (as well as a well-known businessman and activist), a few questions with Saturday's event in mind.

Q. The Canal District Alliance is promoting the replication of a water course between Union Station and Kelley Square. It sounds wonderful, but how close (or far) is that from becoming a reality? In our lifetimes?

A. Well, how old are you? It's feeling a little closer to reality these days -- partly because the economy is getting better, and partly because of the growth of the district. With an established nightlife scene down there, and more and more life on the street, it becomes a lot easier to visualize what we're talking about. It used to feel like a complete stretch; now, people think, "Oh, yeah, it's really just an extension of what's already going on there right now.'' It's pretty easy, for instance, to imagine bicycle taxies taking people around the district just the way they do some places in Boston; and it's easy to imagine more cafes and life on the street because it's already happening. The canal would just be sort of the culmination or crystalization of all that; but it's much easier to imagine these days than it used to be.

Q. Tell us about the $3 million written into the state Environmental Bond Bill? What does that mean in practical terms?

A. The 3 mil is for the actual design and engineering, and it's really just the next step in a process that started 10 years ago. At that time we did a feasibility study, which came up with this Union Station-to-Kelley Square concept; and then we had a scope of services written for this next step. We've had a lot of pretty pictures done so far, and an exciting concept, and a lot of waving our arms in the air. This would mean the actual design: Where there would be water; where there would be cars; where there would be bridges; what the streetscape alongside it would be like; the whole megillah. We understand that it's harder to get money out of a bond bill than it is to get it written into the bond bill, but it really seems to be within our grasp. We're excited.

Q. Meanwhile, 15 years ago walking along Water Street/Green Street I would have thought this was an unlikely area for performance venues and trendy restaurants to spring up. Can you create an arts district, or is it something that has to happen organically?

A. I think you can catalyze an arts district, but to make it up out of whole cloth is just too much to hope for. It's like creating life out of nothing, and who in the world can actually do that? Reality is too complex and too subtle. But the point is that we've already got the fire burning, through all of these incremental investments by a couple of dozen individual entrepreneurs who could smell something beginning to happen down there and wanted to be part of it. And we've got a lot of people working away on events, and suddenly, before you know it, we're a phenomenon. I wouldn't call us an arts district, by the way; but we ARE the Canal District.

Q. Do you see more cultural activity taking place there in the future?

A. Inevitably -- yes. But the cultural stuff sort of follows the rest of the stuff, as far as I'm concerned. We've got a district that has an identity, that's easily accessible, and that people want to go to. We've got a nightlife scene. We've got some retail clusters. We're getting more people living there. We just had a big, successful blues festival (Paulie's New Orleans Jazz and Blues Festival at the Canal District for the first time). We're having our ninth Canalfest. We're getting our second mural done. All of that IS culture. But if you wanted to start an art gallery there, I'd tell you to be very, very careful. People look at galleries as sort of this emblem of urban vitality, but in my opinion it's a successful district that's going to make a gallery successful and not vice versa.

Q. This is the ninth Canalfest. Anything new this year? Can it keep growing, or is just about right?

A. What's new is that we're established now. We're not the upstarts, and we don't have to strain to convince people that it's all going to work. People know that they can come and spend half a day and have a good time, and their kids will have a good time. We've got music, we've got dance, we've got food, we've got street performers, we've got craft demonstrations. And that's not even mentioning the kayaks and the horse and wagon rides. I'm probably forgetting something. How about a farmer's market? It's all happening in the Canal District, so come on down.

Contact Richard Duckett at
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Duckett, Richard
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 2, 2014
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