'United in its darkest hour'

'United in its darkest hour'

Former city entrepreneur returns to organize his biggest bash yet

WOONSOCKET - Everyone knows Albert Beauparlant throws a great party.

The former owner of buildings throughout downtown Woonsocket and member of the city's new Redevelopment Agency was the spirit behind Woonsocket's centennial block party in 1988. More than 20,000 people showed up, and with unique, elaborate decorations and dancing well into the night, the celebration made international news.

But Beauparlant's involvement then, and his work now with the city's latest party - a 125th birthday celebration - is about so much more than just good times.

"The first block party had a certain spirit and all of Main Street came together for Main Street. There was a purpose. There was a reason," he said.

It all started in 1988, when plans for a parade to celebrate the city's 100th anniversary were set to bypass the important road. As an owner of many historic structures, from the Baram to the Longley buildings, Beauparlant was an advocate for the revitalization of a decaying city center, and took action.

"I wanted to bring attention to a deteriorating downtown and also to do something for the common man," he said.

In a rousing speech at a cake-cutting centennial kickoff in June of that year, his plan was launched to incorporate Main Street into the celebration, and Beauparlant began an effort that would last for many decades to come.

"Our mayor sits on Main Street. The gala events of the past were on Main Street. Lincoln spoke on Main Street. For why then is the centennial parade bypassing the grand marshal of all streets? A street that has given more than any other must not be forgotten. We must rebuild."

Twenty-five years later, almost to the day, Beauparlant once again found himself at a cake-cutting Woonsocket birthday kickoff.

"Now we are engaged in a great crisis, testing whether our city so conceived can long endure," Beauparlant told the crowd gathered at Ciro's last week. "It is for us, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that our forefathers passed on to us. Make no mistake, this year, this day, this hour, is Woonsocket's Gettysburg!"

This time, Beauparlant says, the party is about uniting a city, divided by political and economic problems. As co-chair of the event with the mayor's administrative assistant, Linda Plays, he's given it the slogan, "One city, one night, one event." And at the kickoff, a four- by three-foot "Cake of Unity" commemorating every street in Woonsocket, was enjoyed by around 350 guests.

The well known city businessman was not part of Woonsocket's official planning committee back in 1988, but his proposal for a block party on Main Street got the attention, and the eventual endorsement, of then-mayor Charles Baldelli. At the time, Main Street was a one way road with no underground infrastructure and city landmarks, including River Falls, the Museum of Work and Culture, The Stadium Theatre, Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, did not exist.

"The final businesses were in the process of moving out," Beauparlant said.

The party arrived just in time. Organizers dubbed the event "the night of the iguana" and hung a massive decorative blow-up creature over Main Street. The creative piece was feature in newspapers in Saudi Arabia and London, along with the Los Angeles Times. A well publicized "hot legs" contest was won by Patrolman Marc Dubois, now a member of the City Council.

"The plan started in earnest to rebuild downtown," Beauparlant said.

Beauparlant kept up the positive momentum over the next several years with Main Street block parties, First Night celebrations and other festivities, and downtown saw progress. He contracted Ron Deziel to paint a massive mural welcoming people to Woonsocket on the side of the Baram building, then opened City Streets nightclub in 1990.

"It was a very, very positive time for the city," he said. "It's a time in history that was perfect.

But then, in an act that confused many at the time, Beauparlant, mysteriously sold his investments, packed up, and moved his family to Providence. He would not return for 12 years.

Now 53, Beauparlant is back in town, and was asked to spearhead the 125th celebration by Mayor Leo Fontaine.

The Aug. 29 event promises to be a night to remember, with nine stages spanning across a half mile through downtown, from Market Square to the Stadium.

A tent will host 12 restaurants for "A taste of Woonsocket" in Beacon School parking lot. The festivities, which will run from 4 to around 10:30 p.m., will include children's amusements, a car show and a military show.

"I don't know if people understand the magnitude. It's twice as large in every way, form or fashion as the first one. Providence and Boston don't put on a block party to this magnitude."

And while detractors have questioned if such a party is the right use of resources as the city faces possible bankruptcy, Beauparlant considers the job a call to service.

"It's not just a party," he said. "It's everyone showing our best. In spite of the grave situation that we're in now, to show that there is hope. I recognize that people are frustrated but we have to take our city back."

While Beauparlant is hopeful the party will bring together residents from every neighborhood in the city and the surrounding communities of Bellingham, Blackstone and North Smithfield, he also wants the collaboration to extend to city government.

"I come here with humility to unify," he said. "I know one thing, if the city government doesn't unify, there's no hope."

As Woonsocket gears up for a mayoral election and the politics of the season begin to take hold of nearly every facet of city life, Beauparlant's sincerity feels refreshing. He has vowed never to run for political office and his interest in, and love for Woonsocket spans administrations. His family, he says, has been here for more than 100 years.

"I'll do anything for the city," he said. "This city gave me and my family so much in the past."

Beauparlant becomes emotional remembering his decision to leave Woonsocket more than a decade ago.

"It's still hard to talk about now. It was a very significant moment and probably my lowest point," he said.

The year was 1998. Beauparlant had been working for five years on a proposal to get a division of Northeastern University established in Woonsocket, and the project had shown some viability.

Twenty-five associate deans were coming to speak with 75 local businesses owners about the college's potential impact on the local economy when he received a call from then-mayor Susan Menard.

"She said 'the college is too far into the future. I'm not going to be supporting it anymore,'" said Beauparlant. Menard would not be attending the visit from Northeastern.

Fontaine, who at the time was president of the City Council, stayed up with Beauparlant "until the wee hours" preparing a speech to deliver to the deans.

"The question from Northeastern was, where was the mayor, and I didn't have the answer," Beauparlant said.

Heartbroken, Beauparlant abandoned the plan and quietly left Woonsocket. He still describes the news as "his greatest defeat."

"When you don't have a mayor behind your vision, how can you fight it? Rhode Island receives billions of dollars in higher education every year and Woonsocket still doesn't receive one dollar of that."

Now, he says, the tragedy is in the past, and a new plan to revitalize downtown, the Main Street Livability Plan, shows promise. He also says he's had "very private" conversations with Fontaine about reinvigorating the idea of bringing in a higher education facility.

While the party planning committee is holding back many of the details on the city's 125th celebration for now to maintain an element of surprise, Beauparlant revealed that several of the organizers and entertainers from the 100 year celebration have come back for round two.

He hinted at details of a "significant piece of art" to be placed on Main Street.

"I can only tell you that it's going to be representative of 125 year history of what made Woonsocket, Woonsocket. It's going to be something that's really going to capture the essence of what made the city who we are. It's going to be beautiful," he said.

To make a donation to the event or inquire about sponsoring festivities, residents are asked to contact Matt Moylan at 401-651-7102 or matt@cirostavern.com.

"I won't do this for any other city," said Beauparlant. "I feel really blessed and humbled to be put here at its time of need."