The Westerly Education Center is a public-private collaboration designed to bring together higher education, business, industry, and community partners to provide high-quality educational programs to meet projected workforce growth in the region.
Built on a former freight yard next to the Amtrak train station, the new Westerly Education Center aims to play an important role in the revitalization of downtown Westerly. Supported by Chuck Royce, the Westerly philanthropist responsible for dozens of rehabilitation and historic preservation projects in Westerly, the center underpins the sizeable public and private investment of downtown Westerly.
The center actualizes a new vision to link higher education with job training.
April 18, 2014 – An Idea Springs Forward
The germination of the development grew from a chance encounter at Ocean House in Westerly between Rhode Island State Representative Samuel A. Azzinaro and Mr. Royce. Rep. Azzinaro and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary at Ocean House, the historic hotel that Mr. Royce replicated pursuant to standards developed by several historic preservation entities. The two found common interest in the need for a community college presence in downtown Westerly that would complement Mr. Royce’s efforts to preserve architecture and improve downtown.
At a meeting including Rep. Azzinaro, Mr. Royce, R.I. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, and the then-president of the Community College of Rhode Island, Raymond Depasquale, it was determined that a community college as envisioned would only be viable if it incorporated facilities for job-skills training. Rep. Azzinaro identified General Dynamics/Electric Boat, with facilities in Groton-New London, Connecticut and North Kingstown, Rhode Island, as an employer that could be serviced from a downtown Westerly location. General Dynamics/Electric Boat identified Sean Davies, vice president of operations-Quonset Point as its point person in identifying the company’s operational needs and commencing development of a curriculum with CCRI.
Among several downtown locations, one parcel was preferred — 23 Friendship Street. The 2.5 acre site, located on the corner of Canal and Friendship streets, had been vacant for decades.
The site, adjacent to the former Amtrak train station, required environmental rehabilitation. The development of the site permanently addressed the environmental problem near the center of town and as a Brownfield property, it was eligible for state Brownfields remediation and economic development grants authorized by voters in a statewide bond in November 2014.
The Royce Family Fund commissioned a conceptual design for the General Dynamics/Electric Boat hands-on training space for 14,500 sq. ft. with 10 classrooms to be shared between Electric Boat and CCRI, which offered some courses in Westerly at the high school. Royce Family Fund pledged $1 million toward the project. In January 2015, the newly elected Governor, Gina Raimondo, invited Mr. Royce to the statehouse to discuss the project. She opined that additional classrooms, meeting space, and computer labs should be added. She asked Mr. Royce to expand his monetary commitment and indicated that the project should reflect a true private enterprise, state and local government, and philanthropic partnership. Both the Governor and Mr. Royce discussed how this would also serve significant numbers of citizens by providing job skills and formal education in an integrated setting.
The Royce Family Fund purchased the parcel for $450,000 from Sorensen & McCuin Contractors, LLC and gifted it to the charitable arm of the Rhode Island Foundation on October 23, 2015. After construction it will be owned by Westerly Higher Education and Job Skills Center, a 501(c)3 Rhode Island non-profit corporation, which is a supporting organization of the Rhode Island Foundation.
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued its RIPDES Stormwater General Permit Authorization on June 19, 2015 and its Remedial Approval Letter on June 17, 2015.
The enthusiasm of the Westerly community for the project helped expedite the approvals to begin construction. The proposed use of the property was not only consistent with the Town Comprehensive Plan but was an express objective and action item in the plan.
The center had satisfied all requirements of the planning board and architectural review board on October 22, 2015. The variance for the Zoning Board was granted on July 30, 2015 regarding impervious surface. On July 13, 2015, the town council unanimously praised and supported the project and demonstrated its support of the project by committing $300,000 toward its costs. From June 2015 through August 2015, the project received approvals and endorsements from the Westerly School Committee, Economic Development Commission, Police Chief Edward St. Clair, Fire Chief John Mackey and Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen. The Letter of Intent from General Dynamics/Electric Boat was received in July 2015.
Governor Raimondo announced the RIDEM Brownfields grant December 29, 2015.
On February 4, 2016 Governor Raimondo joined with Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere, Representative Samuel A. Azzinaro, the former Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Dr. Jim Purcell, Community College of Rhode Island President Dr. Meghan Hughes and Westerly civic leaders to announce the creation of the Westerly Higher Education and Industry Center.
The center’s architectural design is intended to reflect the town’s granite heritage by using design elements of the many stone-cutter sheds that once dotted the local landscape.
The design was completed in conjunction with Arris Design and pays tribute to the granite industry, which helped to shape the history of Westerly. The late Robert Orenstein, primary architect for the project, took cues from local granite cutting sheds, including one just 3/8th of a mile from the site. Historic photographs of both the exterior and interior of that shed are displayed in the lobby of the Westerly Education Center. The general contractor, Pascack Builders, Inc., began construction in April 2015, with substantial completion in February 2017.
The partial certificate of occupancy was granted for the hands-on training center on December 15, 2016 in order to allow the training of instructors. The first class of General Dynamics/Electric Boat hirees began January 9, 2017, and the classrooms were opened for a variety of classes offered by the Community College of Rhode Island on January 23, 2017.
Full Steam Ahead
At the opening of the facility, the Westerly Higher Education and Industry Center is able to fulfill its mission to:
Provide high-quality undergraduate and graduate credit courses and degree programs as well as non-credit educational opportunities that respond to the needs of business, industry and community.
The project spotlights the ability of the community to connect philanthropic donations, private enterprise, volunteerism and municipal participation for the benefit of all.