BURRILLVILLE – In the village of Pascoag, a walking path runs along the river, and a small pedestrian bridge carries walkers across Sayles Avenue.
Two new buildings have started to bring activity to what was once a quiet area, as residents come and go from upper floor apartments, and patients visit medical offices on the ground level.
Commercial businesses are popping up as well, with a brewery underway at 75-81 Pascoag Main St., and construction of a new restaurant beginning just a few doors down. Signs welcoming visitors to the area also serve to educate passersby on village history, showing information on mills that once dotted the same landscape.
Work is nearly complete on an ice cream shop and deli in another small building on Pascoag Main Street, near where the newly constructed walking path ends, at the also new Gonyea Park.
These are among the first signs that Pascoag, a village that lost its vibrancy, like so many in New England, after mills in the region closed, is springing back to life.
“We’re really excited about Pascoag,” said Jim Langlois, chairman of the Burrillville Redevelopment Agency, a group that first began to envision changes to the village around a decade ago.
At the time, it was hard to imagine what might bring the somewhat blighted commercial downtown into a new era.
“As a long time resident, a lot of people said to me, ‘you’ll never do anything with Pascoag,'” said Langlois.
The agency, formed in 2000 with the mission of revitalizing the town’s sleepy villages, first took aim at the Stillwater Mill Complex in neighboring Harrisville. There, buildings were repurposed to create 47-units of affordable housing, a new library and a pavilion. The project has been widely recognized as an innovative approach to economic development and won a Grow Smart Award in 2012.
Recently, the agency’s latest collaborative project, which mixes commercial space with affordable housing, was also recognized.
In Pascoag, the group began with a meticulous, two-year inventory of the area. Outside consultants, including redevelopment guru Scott Gibbs and Attorney Timothy Kane, were brought in to help formulate a plan.
The agency then partnered with the nonprofit Neighborworks Blackstone River Valley and Well One for outside investment.
On Pascoag Main Street, a former furniture store was knocked down and two new buildings were erected. On High Street where an old mill once stood, the agency acquired the land and designed William E. Gonyea Park, which was later turned over to the town.
A “riverwalk,” starting at the parking lot behind village post office and extending to the new park was created to make the area more pedestrian-friendly, add beauty, and give visitors a place to explore.
“The river runs right through the center of town, and now you can walk right on it,” said Langlois.
The upper levels of one of the new properties, 82 Pascoag Main St., already house 21 apartments. Below, Well One and The Cardiovascular Institute of New England are treating patients.
“Maybe someone won’t have to drive to Providence to see a specialist,” said Langlois. “We still have empty space there that has been fitted out for an X-ray facility.”
Now, focus has turned to the second property, a roughly 6,000-square-foot lot at 75-81 Pascoag Main St.
“We are pleased to announce that we have our first tenant,” said Langlois.
Bravo Brewing has signed a multi-year lease for around half of the available space, with plans to open around Labor Day.
There are other promising developments in the area as well.
One area resident has plans to open a deli and ice cream shop in a small building by the park. At nearby 80 Main St., another building is being renovated to create a food establishment.
And other longtime area businesses have followed suit, improving their properties to fit with the new vibe.
“What it did is it made other property owners in the area take a look at their property,” said Langlois. “That private investment comes from the public investment.”
He points to improvements at nearby restaurant Thai Royal, which include a deck overlooking a waterfall, as a prime example.
“From what it looked like five years ago, to what it looks like today, it’s a big change,” Langlois said.
The agency also worked with volunteers to form a new Downtown Pascoag Neighborhood Association to create community events like the annual Victorian Holiday and Pumpkin Fest.
It is all part of rebuilding a sense of pride and community that in turn, also attracts outside investors.
“We are getting interest,” said Langlois. “We’re getting people calling and coming up to take a look at the area. In the beginning, there was nobody talking to us.”
For Langlois, two decades of work with the five-member agency has been incredibly satisfying.
“As a lifelong resident of the community, I grew up on the tale end of when the mills were still running, and we watched it all die,” he said. “You could see it happen, and no one really knew what to do.”
When the opportunity to serve on a board focused on changing that arose, Langlois says he jumped at it. And he’s served long enough to watch his and others’ visions for the town become reality.
“It’s very fulfilling,” Langlois said. “It’s been fun.”
Town Manager Michael Wood and Planners Tom Kravitz, followed by Ray Goff, have also been key to the agency’s efforts.
“Everyone has contributed to the overall vision and plan,” said Langlois.
Now, the agency has turned its sights to Nasonville, where they’ve held four meetings to hear the public’s feedback on potential plans, all with a huge turnout. A plan for that village, with the former Nasonville Mill at the center, Langlois notes, was on file 10 years ago before the country’s economic downturn, and has now been revived.
“The people in town are excited. We’re trying to bring stuff into the community that we don’t have. The town is ripe for it,” said Langlois. “We think people are ready to shop and stay in town.”
“I still don’t believe that we’re making this much progress in Pascoag, but it’s happening.,” he added. “We always knew it could be done. We’re excited.”
Those interested in commercial or retail space in Pascoag are advised to call (401) 658-0665, (401) 440-1742 or inquire at Town Hall.