WESTERLY — The United Theatre is $83,500 closer to reaching its $12 million goal to complete renovations on the Canal Street building following a lively business expo held Tuesday night in the space that aims one day to be the region's "mini Lincoln Center."
"Westerly is on fire tonight," said a jubilant Lisa Konicki at the close of the event, which attracted hundreds of people and gained donations and pledges ranging in size from $1,000 to $10,000 from local residents and businesses.
"I am so incredibly proud of our chamber of commerce for taking a leadership role and our small business community for their incredible generosity," said Konicki. "The momentum and energy was amazing ... what an awesome kickoff."
Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean Community Chamber Foundation, sparked the fire in the room full of business people and champions of the arts, and got the momentum going when she announced that the chamber foundation was going to make "the largest donation in our history."
"We have committed $10,000 to this project," Konicki announced as applause erupted through the room. "And we are very proud."
Konicki also serves on the United's board of directors.
With the applause still strong, longtime chamber member Geraldine Cunningham, of First Financial Advisory Services Inc., walked forward to announce that her company, too, would pledge $10,000 to the campaign. Then followed Jennifer Brinton of Grey Sail Brewing of Rhode Island with another $10,000 pledge, and another from Randall, Realtors. Joseph Miceli of Miceli's Furniture stepped forward next, announcing his $10,000 pledge, as did Angela Smith, of Westerly, a longtime member of the chamber board. She and her husband, Arthur Smith, pledged $5,000.
Leo La Roche, who owns the Brazen Hen, across Canal Street from the United Theatre, also pledged $5,000.
Roche, who also owns The Black Sheep, in Niantic, and Harp & Hound, in Mystic, said that when he heard about the United Project, he wanted to open a third restaurant in Westerly.
"I wanted to be here," he said, "and I am so happy to be across the street."
The Malted Barley also pledged $5,000, Printing Plus pledged $1,000, as did Re-Read Bookstore and a number of other business and individuals.
Konicki was one of several speakers at the chamber-sponsored event, which was held to offer business owners the opportunity to participate in what has been called the "Community Phase" of the fundraising project.
Other speakers were Maureen Fitzgerald, who chairs the United's board of directors; David J. Beauchesne, executive director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic; Beth Frenette, chairman of the chamber board; architect Lewis Jacobsen, and the co-chairs of the campaign, Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, and philanthropist Charles "Chuck" Royce.
Once completed, Konicki said, "the United Theatre will change everything" in Westerly.
Jacobsen who showed slides of the plans. He said that when the project is completed, there will be two movie theaters that will show films every day of the year. One will have "luxury seating," where drinks will be served.
"There will be something here every night," he said. "The heart of the United is the black box theater ... for everything from rock concerts to opera to theater-in-the-round."
"We say it will be a little Lincoln Center," said Jacobsen. "But not even Lincoln Center has something every night."
Royce, who invited everyone to contribute to the campaign, said he was "thrilled to walk around and see the community coming together."
"We're just beginning the community phase," he said, "and we need your support. No amount is too small."
The idea of showing films every day, Royce added, has a particular appeal. "Even a bad movie brings in 10 people," he joked, "Think about how many a good movie would bring in."
Beauchesne said a market study completed by the philharmonic indicates a potential for 300 students a week to attend classes and take music lessons in the United Theatre space. "We are going to be part of the fabric of this community," he said. "It is in our mission to offer music education to all of Rhode Island."
Beauchesne also spoke about the positive changes the United will bring to Westerly.
"Young people and families will be coming in and out all the time," he said.
Fitzgerald said, "I am so pleased with the community support that will help move this project forward." In an interview earlier this month, Fitzgerald said groundbreaking for the United will begin this year.
As Algiere said, "This is an exciting project, and it will happen." The total raised so far is nearly $10.5 million.
When completed, the much-anticipated project will provide downtown Westerly with a state-of- the-art regional arts complex including several multi-use venues and a world-class education center.
"We are hoping people will want to become partners on the project," Konicki said at the beginning of the event. "We want them to become part of the momentum."
The momentum was still building late Tuesday night as donors were still contacting Konicki with pledges and donations.
"Wow," Konicki wrote in a text message after tallying up the donations. "Just wow."
"This is so wonderful for all the artists and all the culture in the region," said Lori Robishaw, the executive director of Stonington's La Grua Center. "This is what brings communities together."