December 31, 2015 07:53PM
By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — The Town Council will consider a request for $250,000 to $300,000 in town funds to be used toward the creation of a job training and education center planned for the corner of Canal and Friendship Streets.
The money will be used toward the cost of the center, which will be leased to the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education as a satellite campus of Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).
Thomas Liguori Jr., the lawyer who represents Sorensen and McCuin Contractors of High Street, the current owners of the 2.5-acre property the center is planned for, has also asked the council to authorize installation of sidewalks along Friendship Street from Canal Street to the entrance of the proposed facility, installation of any necessary waterline upgrades and the waiver of all municipal fees for permits and hook-up to municipal utilities.
The council is scheduled to vote on a resolution encompassing all the requests during a meeting scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m.
The Royce Family Fund, a 501 (c)(3) charitable foundation created by Charles Royce, has pledged $1.775 million toward acquisition of the land construction of the facility, which will be owned by the Rhode Island Foundation and leased to the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education for $1 per year. The Royce Family Fund’s commitment hinges on the town, state, and other philanthropic groups getting on board by helping to pay for the project, Liguori said.
During a presentation to the Town Council on July 6, Liguori provided the following project budget: $4.517 for construction (including contingency), $550,000 for site work and $450,000 for purchase of the land.
In addition to the funds committed by the Royce Fund and the requested funds from the town, project organizers hope to secure $1.5 million from the state, $640,000 in additional state brownfields remediation funds and $355,000 in other philanthropic funds.
According to Liguori, the state Department of Environmental Protection has issued an action letter, indicating the building, driveway, sidewalks, and parking lot would remedy site contamination resulting from the land’s former use as a freight yard by capping the contaminated soil. The site is adjacent to Amtrak’s southbound passenger platform.
If approved by the council, the town’s contribution would be paid over a five-year period with the first payment made upon issuance of a partial certificate of occupancy.
The 34,000-square-foot building would be composed of 18 classrooms over 20,000 square feet and a 14,000-square-foot training space.
High school seniors from Westerly, the Chariho region, Groton, Stonington, and North Stonington would be eligible for training at the facility. Upon graduation, the students would have immediate access to a job at Electric Boat and would be in line to start additional studies at the facility geared toward attaining an associate’s degree. Electric Boat has committed to reimbursing post-high school tuition costs for students who maintain a minimum of a B average.
Once up and running, the facility will train 120 people in 13 week intervals, Liguori said. Skills such as welding and electronics installation will be taught.
Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island will also use the facility. And employers other than Electric Boat will be encouraged to use the facility for worker training.
Ray Di Pasquale, CCRI president and a Westerly resident, said the curriculum to be used at the center is under development. He recalled being “amazed” at Royce’s vision during an early meeting to discuss the facility.
“This is unique I can tell you that. This doesn’t happen very often ... what better thing could we do for Westerly students and the economy of this section of the state,” Di Pasquale said.
The center’s architectural design is intended to reflect the town’s granite heritage by using design elements of the many cutting houses that once dotted the local landscape. Additionally, Robert Ornstein of Arris Design, project architect, said the training portion of the facility is intended to mimic the work spaces at Electric Boat.
Maura Dunn, Electric Boat vice president of human resources, said the company has an “urgent” and “desperate” need for skilled workers and a means to train them. The company was awarded a contract in April of 2014 to build 10 Virginia-class attack submarines. Under the contract, the company is expected to begin work on two submarines in each of the first five years of the contract. The last submarine is to be delivered to the Navy in 2023.
According to Dunn, Electric Boat has hired 600 engineers for its New London facility since the contract was awarded and has hired 1,500 workers in total year-to-date. Skilled laborers earn between $14 and $20 per hour and can progress rapidly to earning about $50,000 annually, she said.
Aware of Electric Boat’s intense need, Liguori said those working on the project hope to have the building up by July 5, 2016.
James Purcell, commissioner of the Rhode Island Council on Post Secondary Education, said he had directed CCRI to begin budgeting for equipment and furnishing for the facility.
According to Liguori, the facility’s lease will include provisions that allow the Rhode Island Foundation to seek facilitators other than CCRI in the event of an economic downturn leading to the closing of the college’s satellite facilities or if the college becomes otherwise unable to provide job training at the facility. Neil Steinberg, Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO, addressed the council during its July 6 meeting to confirm the foundation’s involvement and commitment.
Plans for the facility grew out of a chance encounter between State Rep. Sam Azzinaro and Royce while Azzinaro and his wife, Carol, were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary at the Ocean House about one year ago. Azzinaro introduced himself to Royce, and thanked him for his many investments in the town, especially in the downtown area. Royce, the primary force behind the renaissance of the Ocean House, is a significant benefactor of the Westerly Land Trust’s urban initiative, which is focused on preserving architecture and improving the downtown area. It was during the serendipitous meeting that Royce told Azzinaro of his belief that the downtown needed a community college. Azzinaro promised to introduce Royce to Di Pasquale and the first of many meetings that culminated in the development of the current plans was scheduled. The meetings included Gov. Gina Raimondo, who convinced Royce to increase his family fund’s initial planned investment from $1 million to $1.77 million.
As the plans were being formulated, Azzinaro said he learned that Electric Boat was struggling to find 600 workers to fill positions at its Quonset Point location. “It was like a punch in the stomach,” Azzinaro said.
Azzinaro strongly encouraged the Town Council to support the project.
“This is such a boon for Westerly and the state of Rhode Island we can not let this go, look at what this is going to bring to downtown, with all the students and faculty. The merchants are going to go crazy with the insurgence,” Azzinaro said.
State Sen. Dennis Algiere predicted the facility would spur similar offerings in the area. He promised the project has complete support from the state General Assembly and state department heads.
“This is unprecedented, I have never seen cooperation or collaboration for a project like this, we should be proud and thankful,” Algiere said.
Royce called the community college system “the most critical system in the education environment. It does everything that most four-year colleges can’t do. It provides that introductory job training and introductory training to how the world works,” Royce said.
Each of the selectmen from Stonington also praised the project and voiced support.
By approving the resolution, Liguori said the Town Council will announce the town’s support of the project to Royce, the state and other potential donors. He said development of the plans for the facility and the proposed collaborative approach to funding represent “the Westerly way,” Liguori said.
“We do things our way. It’s a good way. It’s been a successful way and it’s why all of us think this is the best place to live and it’s why we live here,” Liguori said.
The town attempted to partner with the Royce Family Foundation to purchase the property simply for use as a parking lot. Those plans fell through when the town’s application for a brownfield grant from the state was denied. The grants are geared to environmental remediation projects that will lead to job development.
The town’s Comprehensive Plan of Development calls for town officials to work toward facilitating the creation of a CCRI branch in the town.
Councilor Philip Overton, a community college graduate, said the facility will “fill a huge void” by providing training for students who do not wish to go to college.