08/03/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Rhode Island Mill Town Discovers Its Chocolatey Past

Central Falls does not have much. The former industrial Rhode Island town, with a population of around 20,000, is in the news mostly for its calamitous municipal bankruptcy. Instead of a mayor, it has a state-appointed receiver.

Even as it goes through painful cuts, however, Central Falls and its neighbor, Pawtucket, are trying to reorient their economies around a historical resource that went almost unnoticed for decades. The two cities are both located along the Blackstone River, where Englishman Samuel Slater defected from his home country to build the first mills of the American Industrial Revolution.

The mills and the jobs they provided are long since gone, but planners are now turning back to the river, in the hope that they can spark an economic revival by redeveloping the old buildings their predecessors left them.

In the process, Central Falls has rediscovered a chapter of its history that many of its residents may have forgotten about: it used to be called Chocolateville. Central Falls, it turns out, was host to the first chocolate mill in America. That legacy has spawned attempts to draw tourism to the area and other moves to spruce up the river.

On July 23, Pawtucket awarded a planning consultant a $100,000 contract to develop a vision for the watery corridor that runs through it and Central Falls. Further north, Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials are kicking off projects to clean up the river, which is currently unsafe for swimming.

The goal of it all, according to Thomas Mann, Jr., executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation, is to "create this character of place that can be a destination. And that's what we're really locked onto -- economic development and job creation. That's going to be a spillover effect."

Nowhere is that "if you build it they will come" spirit more apparent than in Central Falls, where in May, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council dedicated the Chocolate Mill Overlook Park.

Natalie Carter, director of operations for the tourism agency, said the area has "a tremendous amount of challenges." The city was originally supposed get a $12 million replica of the original William Wheat chocolate factory, but the economic downturn canceled those plans. Instead, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council pared down its plans last November to build a small park, supported by a $35,000 grant from confectioner Mars Incorporated.

"It adds another element," Carter said. "There are successes along the way."

The project created about 12 temporary jobs, Carter said, and will require more work for upkeep. Central Falls, which had a seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 13.9 percent in June, could use all the successes it can get. The state as a whole has an 11.2 percent unemployment rate, second only to Nevada.

Further redevelopment efforts will be hindered, however, by the lapse of a state historic tax credit that in recent years had sparked a wave of redevelopments of the old mill buildings that dot the Blackstone River. In the past, said Mann, some of those projects sparked local tax increases of up to 2000 percent on some properties as condos, artist studios and retail businesses moved in. Of the $184 million in redevelopment projects in the area, about 70 percent of them depended on state or federal tax credits.

But Mann said that just as the state was considering whether to extend its tax breaks, the 38 Studios video game company, which had been supported by a separate state development program, went under. Unlike the mill projects, the video game company did not depend on some historical Rhode Island asset -- but on a speculative bet that former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling could make a great game.

"I think that thing just killed all prospects of this thing going through because there was so much scrutiny," Mann said. But he said efforts are ongoing to restore the credits.

"When these mills get repurposed, businesses come in," he said. "It creates an opportunity for affordable office space, for affordable living. It just helps the area."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Central Falls' receiver is court appointed.