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October 22, 2018

$21M Blackstone visitor center opening Saturday

Photo/Grant Welker Devon Kurtz, the acting executive director of the Blackstone Heritage Corridor, shows off the new Blackstone Heritage Corridor visitor center in Worcester Monday. The center will open to the public Saturday.
Photo/Grant Welker U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, left listens as Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus points out a new city park that will stand across the street from the new Blackstone Heritage Corridor visitor center.
Photo/Grant Welker The design of the center is meant to evoke the site's industrial mill history.
Photo/Grant Welker The center also includes outdoor public spaces including an events pavilion and a grassy expanse for concerts and performances.
Photo/Grant Welker The center includes interactive exhibits on the Blackstone River and the corridor's industrial history.
Photo/Grant Welker Artifacts from Worcester's industrial history is on display, including railroad ties and ice skates.
Photo/Grant Welker The adjacent Blackstone Gateway Park spans Mill Pond and stretches about half a mile between the new visitor center and Fitton Field at the College of the Holy Cross.

Ideas for a Blackstone River Valley visitor center in Worcester were first pitched around three decades ago. On Saturday, the center will finally become reality.

The $21-million center off McKeon Road features interactive exhibits telling the industrial history of the valley and of the river itself, which once helped power mills from Worcester down to Providence. A classroom will help tell that story to students, and outdoor picnic areas and a lawn for concerts and other events will bring the center's benefits to the surrounding Quinsigamond Village neighborhood, officials said while giving a media tour on Monday.

"A visitor center is one of the worst misnomers you can imagine," said Harry Whitin, the chairman of the board for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.

The center, Whitin said, can teach a visitor all the basics of the corridor and and many historical details they may never have known.

One display shows materials made in Worcester, from railroad spikes and ice skates to monkey wrenches and weaving looms. Officials see the center as showing off the history of not only Worcester but to a broader region central to the Industrial Revolution.

"We are the hub to the Blackstone River Valley and the gateway to the city of Worcester," said Devon Kurtz, the acting executive director for the Blackstone Heritage Corridor.

The center, which was designed by Boston-based designLAB architects, is meant to evoke the site's history as a mill. The manufacturer Washburn and Moen once had a wire-making plant there that made wires for the Brooklyn Bridge, Whitin said.

Steel frames that span the site recall the property's industrial heyday, and sawtooth windows lining the roof mimic the roof of the mill that once stood there.

"We wanted the use the architecture to tell the story," said Sam Batchelor, a partner with designLAB.

Environmentally friendly features are central to the building's design. Reclaimed brick lines much of the building's exterior, and reclaimed wood covers much of the floor inside. Solar panels atop an events pavilion is expected to provide 75 percent to 80 percent of the center's energy needs. A massive steel hopper at the rear of the building will burn wood pellets to heat the building.

The center will include the Central Massachusetts offices of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. Roughly a dozen of DCR's staff will move from the Clinton office, which will remain open.

A grand opening for the Worcester site is scheduled for Saturday, with a ribbon-cutting and speaking program from 9 to 10 a.m. and a community celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The center is located at 3 Paul Clancy Way.

Coinciding with the center's opening is the official opening of the adjacent Blackstone Gateway Park, the 61st park in the city. The park includes a trail running roughly half a mile to the west end of McKeon Road near the College of the Holy Cross' Fitton Field, with raised walkways over Mill Pond.

The visitor center itself cost $12 million, but additional site work raised the price to just over $21 million, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern. Federal spending, which McGovern said he first secured in 1998, covered $13.7 million, with another roughly $7 million committed by the state. The remainder was mostly a mix of city funds and money raised by the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.

"It's had all kinds of ups and downs," McGovern said of the center's long history to become reality. "And here we are and it's all done."

"It was 20 years of not giving up," City Manager Edward Augustus added later.

Holy Cross pitched in $135,000 over three years to cover half the salary of the visitor center's project manager and $25,000 for operational expenses, along with roughly 4,000 square feet of college-owned land to the park. The exhibits were funded by the Stoddard Charitable Trust, the Fletcher Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Sybil H. Fuller Foundation and the Fred Harris Daniels Foundation.

The Blackstone Gateway Park cost $4.6 million, with a mix of city and state funding.

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