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Mission of history; Heritage Corridor nonprofit gets new exec director.

Byline: Susan Spencer

WOONSOCKET, R.I. -- The hard-worn former mill towns that line the Blackstone River from Worcester to Providence tell a vital story about America's industrial history.

A fledgling nonprofit organization, built on the shoulders of a nearly 30-year-long National Park Service partnership in the two-state region, recently hired its first permanent executive director to carry on the mission of preserving what is known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.

Charlene Perkins Cutler began work at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Inc., in the former Woonsocket train station, Sept. 2.

In an interview, Ms. Cutler said she wanted to connect people with the river, with the landscape and with the 24 communities in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.

Since 1986, National Park Service rangers and managers have worked with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission to tell the region's story of farms to factories, to mass production, innovation and workers' lives.

"I just look everywhere in the valley with new eyes,'' said Donna M. Williams of Grafton, chairman of the Corridor Commission. "I no longer see things in a habitual way: the workers' housing, the landscape, the factories. We still live and breathe this industrial history.''

Legislation has been making its way through Congress to create a national park in five of the historic factory communities -- Slater Mill Historic Site, Slatersville (North Smithfield) and Ashton Village (Cumberland) in Rhode Island, and Whitinsville (Northbridge) and Hopedale in Massachusetts. But whether or not the national park is established, the nonprofit Blackstone Heritage Corridor will "be the glue to keep the other pieces together,'' Ms. Cutler said.

Ms. Cutler didn't come far -- or from a far different model -- to fill the role as the nonprofit's first executive director. For more than 17 years she served as executive director and CEO of the Quinebaug & Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in northeastern Connecticut and south central Massachusetts. That 35-town corridor is also known as The Last Green Valley.

"We've always had a relationship with the Blackstone (Corridor),'' Ms. Cutler said. "It wasn't like I was coming to the moon from Mars.''

Perhaps more importantly from an organizational viewpoint, The Last Green Valley was established as the first of the country's 50 national heritage corridors to be managed by a nonprofit.

"The difference between a federal commission and a nonprofit isn't a useful comparison,'' she continued. "It's just different vehicles for the same work.''

She said both national heritage corridors have enjoyed strong partnerships with the National Park Service for grants and support.

Ms. Williams said the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Commission has always used federal funds as seed money with nonprofit organizations and communities within its boundaries. Now the roles will be different, but the mission will be the same.

"The big difference is there are fewer constraints on a nonprofit for developing resources for their programing. It just opens more doors,'' Ms. Cutler said.

For instance, nonprofit organizations can apply for a broader range of grants from foundations, and people can make tax-deductible contributions to a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

The Blackstone Heritage Corridor has a membership arm, called Corridor Keepers, to support the work of the organization.

"The tricky part is now we need to match the federal funds we will be receiving,'' Ms. Cutler said.

Blackstone Heritage Corridor has three full-time employees, in addition to Ms. Cutler, who work on events, community planning, the 48-mile Blackstone River Greenway project, and the Worcester Blackstone Visitor Center in Quinsigamond Village.

But two National Park Service rangers, who have told thousands of stories and led legions of schoolchildren, history buffs and tourists through the Blackstone Valley, also still serve the corridor.

Ms. Cutler said she wanted to fully assess the organization and make recommendations before launching new initiatives, but she's hit the ground running:

There's the UniBank Blackstone River Valley Greenway Challenge multisport adventure race Sept. 27.

The corridor is working with the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce for a manufacturing day Oct. 3.

Segments of the Greenway path for biking and pedestrians are moving forward.

A photo calendar contest is in the offing.

Coordinated efforts to reduce stormwater runoff, a major environmental threat to the river's health, are ongoing.

And a major initiative, the Worcester Blackstone Visitor Center at the northern end of the corridor, is taking shape.

Plans and funding for a gateway visitor center developed a decade ago, but abruptly changed when the Washburn & Moen factory, where it would have been housed along with the relocated Worcester Historical Museum, burned in March 2010.

The new project is still in the design and planning phase for an 8,000-square-foot building surrounded by landscaped grounds, connected to Gateway Park and the Blackstone River Greenway bike and pedestrian path.

Devon Kurtz, the former education director at the Higgins Armory Museum, was hired in the spring as the visitor center's project manager.

It will be the fourth visitor center in the corridor, joining centers in Pawtucket, the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket and River Bend Farm in Uxbridge.

"It's going to be much more than a B&B -- bathrooms and brochures,'' Ms. Williams said.

Plans include kayak access to the river, bike rental, space for a farmers market, and water quality monitoring sites.

Ms. Cutler has plans to feature updated visitor information material at the Worcester center, including the types of technology used. Digital imagery and mobile devices have come a long way since the videos and DVDs of even a decade ago were produced, she explained.

Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Blackstone Heritage Corridor's board of directors, said, "On both ends, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, we're working hard to keep it relevant. Charlene is well-equipped to carrying on.''

"She has so much experience, expertise and vision,'' Ms. Williams said. "She's the right person to help us grow.''

Contact Susan Spencer at susan.spencer@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Spencer, Susan
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1RI
Date:Sep 21, 2014
Words:999
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