State and local officials, dignitaries christen Westerly Education Center

State and local officials, dignitaries christen Westerly Education Center


WESTERLY — On her first day in office, Gov. Gina Raimondo received a phone call from Jeffrey S. Geiger, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat.

“He said, ‘I have a concern. Electric Boat is growing — we have the contracts, but we are worried. Are we going to be able to find the talent supply and the skilled folks we need to fill these jobs?’” Raimondo said Friday during a dedication ceremony at the Westerly Education Center on Friendship Street.

The governor and her staff set about establishing apprenticeship programs and supporting workforce development initiatives, including the education center, which at the time was still a vision born of a conversation between Chuck Royce and state Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly.

An audience of hundreds gathered for the ceremony, which included remarks from an Electric Boat official who made it clear that the facility, which opened in January, has already produced tangible results.

“Electric Boat is a proud partner in this innovative effort that provides students with critical skills and the opportunity to develop a successful career in manufacturing. Since opening in January, nearly 100 graduates have started on the shop floors at Electric Boat,” said Sean Davies, vice president of operations at the company’s Quonset Point location.

Electric Boat is the facility’s initial anchor tenant. Working in conjunction with the Community College of Rhode Island, which provides instructors, the company developed a curriculum designed to give students hands-on lessons in maritime pipe fitting, sheet metal and electrical work. An estimated 900 students could move through the Electric Boat program each year. Two additional classes were scheduled to commence on Friday.

Other companies in need of a training facility are being sought. To that end, on Friday, Brenda Dann-Messier, the state’s acting commissioner of postsecondary education, announced that Real Jobs Rhode Island had approved a planning grant for a proposed partnership between the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., CCRI, and the facility. If successful, the planning process could lead to Pfizer establishing worker training at the facility. Real Jobs Rhode Island is a workforce development initiative of the Raimondo administration.

Discussions are also under way that could lead to Rhode Island College offering a nursing program to bring registered nurses with associate’s degrees to a Bachelor of Science degree level. The college will begin offering computer classes in late May and plans to offer community health worker and behavioral health training in the fall.

“Additional workforce programs will be offered based on community and industry needs,” said Frank Sánchez, Rhode Island College president.

The college also loaned works of art to the facility from its Bannister Gallery.

Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Rhode Island also offer programming at the facility, which was built on a former freight yard. The property was considered a polluted brownfield and was remediated with funds allotted by the state Department of Environmental Management. GrowSmart Rhode Island, which promotes sustainable and equitable economic growth, announced on Friday that the center will receive one of its Smart Growth awards for 2017.

“Thank you” was the phrase of the day as a panel of 10 speakers described the collaborative public-private partnership that led to construction of the 14,500-square-foot building. Royce and Azzinaro conceived the project over a drink at the Ocean House, while Azzinaro and his wife, Carol, were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in April 2014. The Royce Family Foundation contributed $1.77 million toward the $5.1 million facility. A total of $1.46 was contributed by the state and an additional $360,000 came from the state Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner. Others funds came from the town, Washington Trust, Westerly Community Credit Union, the Roberts Foundation, and Delta Mechanical Contractors. Electric Boat contributed $425,000 worth of equipment.

Royce, his wife, Deborah, and Royce’s son-in-law, Daniel King, were presented with a photograph of the facility.

“My motivation was not just to bring a community college but to strengthen downtown, the beautiful, fantastic and extraordinarily vibrant zone which is substantially enhanced by having this here,” Royce said.

Royce confirmed his initial conversation with Azzinaro that led to the ultimate creation of the center and said state Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, played a critical role in making the center a reality. Algiere acted as host for the ceremony. Royce also thanked King and Thomas J. Liguori Jr., a local lawyer who has worked on many of Royce’s projects, including the rebirth of the Ocean House and the Weekapaug Inn.

“There are two people without whom this would not have happened ... my son-in-law, Dan King, and Tommy Liguori,” Royce said.

King and Liguori guided the project, keeping the players on task, and brought it in on time and on budget, Royce said.

State General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, whose job involves managing state investments, said the project signals a vote of confidence in Westerly and the surrounding region by state government.

“There is no better investment that we can make as a state than building a skilled workforce,” Magaziner said.

Nicholas A. Mattiello, speaker of the state House of Representatives, praised Azzinaro and Algiere, saying they were “relentless, they really advocated on behalf of this project.”

Algiere called the center “a great example of a public-private partnership resulting in a facility that will provide the education and technical skills to meet the needs of employers and students and provide them with jobs when they leave here.”

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