Time of transition at Slater Mill brings renewed focus on community

Time of transition at Slater Mill brings renewed focus on community

Charles Whitin, grant writer at the Slater Mill, shows off improvements at the Wilkinson Mill at the Slater Mill historic site last Friday. A contraption catches trash coming down the raceway before it can get into the waterwheel under the building. Staff at the Slater Mill are working hard to upgrade the historic landmark. (Valley breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)

PAWTUCKET - A period of transition is no time to sit still, say staff members at the Slater Mill, which is why now is the perfect opportunity for a renewed focus on basics of what has made this place a success, the community and the things it cares about.

Charles Whitin, the grant writer whose work helps land so much of the funding needed to keep the historic site going, told The Breeze that staff members are pushing hard to regain the footing they might have lost a bit in recent years when it comes to engaging the community in the work that is done here. There's a "real focus on the community" right now that "may not have been nurtured" very much in the recent past, he said.

Whether growing and maintaining close relationships with community groups and artists, or planning physical upgrades that local schoolchildren will enjoy, everything needs to be about community, he said.

Kasey Johnson, development associate at the Slater Mill Museum, said that staff members are working to "create a culture that's built around" not only the history of the mill but the community that's been such a key part of its success through each phase of that history.

Johnson said that board members have commenced a national search for a new director of the mill, even as local attorney Keith Fayan, who is involved with many local causes and groups, fills the position in an interim capacity.

In June the Slater Mill Board of Trustees voted to remove Susan Whitney as executive director. Board members said at the time that the historic landmark needed a new direction and more events and amenities designed to engage the community.

Slater Mill employees are also in waiting mode on a potential decision to make the Pawtucket landmark the centerpiece of a new national park in the Blackstone River Valley, but they say a continued shift in priorities is needed with or without the designation.

It may seem basic enough, said Johnson, but even her push to book more weddings at the mill fits in with the "collective consensus" among staff members at the mill that they must be more mindful of the Pawtucket community and Rhode Island as a whole.

Why would those who run the mill not want to work well with such events as the Labor and Ethnic Heritage Festival, or groups like the Community Guild Studios, asked Whitin. Certain events may "cost as much as they get back," he said, but are an important part of what the Slater Mill is, adding "another dimension" to the experience.

The Slater Mill remains a huge draw to school groups, said Whitin, with approximately 11,000 students in grade school coming through the doors each year. In this age of cutbacks to "extra" activities like a field trip to the mill, staff at Pawtucket's main tourist attraction say they are doing everything in their power to make sure students from Pawtucket and across the area can continue coming, he said. A "terrific award" from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities will ensure that students from disadvantaged districts are able to visit.

There are plenty of upgrades planned at the mill that the community should enjoy for years to come, said Johnson and Whitin. One of the most exciting will be a blacksmith shop, funded in part through a donation by the Pawtucket Rotary. Blacksmith shops were always a part of the old mills, said Whitin and Johnson, and will bring more action and vitality to the site.

Other projects, like a complete exterior rehab and painting planned for next year, may not seem as exciting but are every bit as important to maintaining the mill as "the face of Pawtucket," said Whitin.

The faithful re-enactors at Slater Mill remain the most important part of the puzzle in engaging the community, said Johnson, as they welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors for tours each year.

Improvements to the Slater Mill website, www.slatermill.org , as well as planned online cataloguing of all items at the mill, will help build connections with the community beyond the mill property, said Whitin and Johnson.

Located on the Blackstone River in downtown Pawtucket, Slater Mill is a museum complex dedicated to bringing the American Industrial Revolution to life. It is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

The mill's many funding sources, both public and private, continue to make its operation possible, said Whitin. The money has helped pay for everything from exterior repair work on the Wilkinson Mill, to dredging the sediment out of Slater Mill's raceway, to rehabbing turbines and waterwheels.

The Slater Mill historic site remains Pawtucket's biggest tourist destination.
Earl Wallace, of Pawtucket, says he loves coming to the Slater Mill to watch the water and the wildlife on it.
A complete rehab on the deteriorating exterior of the Slater Mill is the next big project planned.

Comments

If I didn't know better, reading this article makes me want to rush down to the Slater Mill for the day! GREAT JOB! But, can a 90 minute tour transform the fortunes of a crumbling delapitated old city that has nothing else to offer? Sorry, I can't see it happening...especially with their reliance on federal and private monies to keep it in business. I'm not sure what else Pawtucket can do, but I don't think Slater Mill is the answer. This article reeks of desperation...like it's their last chance to survive. SAD!