Washington, DC – Bob Billington, President of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, will virtually join U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse for President Biden’s State of the Union address this evening. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council received a $918,124 grant last year from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program, which was created by Democrats’ American Rescue Plan. The grant allowed the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council to safely reopen its popular Polar Express Train Ride in downtown Woonsocket during the 2021 holiday season, restoring a beloved family tradition and the Tourism Council’s primary annual revenue raiser.
“I’m delighted to have the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council’s Bob Billington join as my virtual guest this year,” said Whitehouse. “Our American Rescue Plan saved the Tourism Council’s Polar Express, a beloved Christmas tradition and an important economic engine for Blackstone Valley businesses. After a couple of years that were filled with disruption for kids, the COVID-safe Polar Express provided a joyful adventure for thousands of children. Saving the Polar Express also meant restoring revenue for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council so that it could continue promoting local businesses and all that the Blackstone Valley has to offer year-round.”
“Without the Shuttered Venues Operator Grant Program, the Polar Express would not have taken place. The grant allowed us to bring visitors back to the Blackstone Valley and keep the organization alive,” said Billington, a Central Falls resident. “Having the Senator honor me with this opportunity shines a bright light on the Blackstone Valley. In addition to his support for getting Rhode Island’s economy back on track, he is the environmental lead in the Senate, and we so much appreciate his help in bringing back the Blackstone and Pawtucket Rivers to health.”
The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council has eight full-time employees and nine year-round part-time employees. In the winter, employment typically grows to about 75 people for production of the Polar Express Train Ride.
The slowdown in tourism and recreation at the height of the pandemic presented major challenges for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. The Polar Express Train Ride provides the bulk of funding for Blackstone Valley Tourism Council’s activities to boost tourism throughout the year. The Polar Express typically brings around 25,000 people to downtown Woonsocket, filling not only the train, but giving a boost to surrounding businesses. The closure of the Polar Express Train Ride in 2020 due to the pandemic was devastating, leading to a loss of 83 percent of the Tourism Council’s operating budget.
A $918,124 grant from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program allowed the Polar Express to reopen for the 2021 holiday season. The Tourism Council cut capacity by half to keep customers and staff safe, drawing over 12,000 people to Woonsocket for the attraction. Grant funds were used to expand the event’s footprint by tenting a parking lot next to the train station. The Tourism Council also purchased safety fencing, hired Mount Saint Charles High School to create an outdoor stage show to entertain children prior to boarding the train, brought on Davies Technical School health care students to maintain health protocols, and funded a professional cleaning staff to purify train cars in between trips. The entire Polar Express program was reworked to limit touch points and ensure passengers could enjoy their experience with less interaction. Remaining grant funds will be spent on expanded outdoor features for the Polar Express 2022.
Whitehouse met with Billington on Zoom yesterday afternoon. Billington also attended a virtual reception for State of the Union guests earlier this evening. Members of Congress will watch the State of the Union in person this year.
Meaghan McCabe, (401) 453-5294