WESTERLY — Maureen Fitzgerald sat in her High Street office on the second day of the new year feeling positive about 2019 and what it holds for the $12 million Ocean Community United Theatre project.
“We are very confident that the shovel will go in the ground in 2019,” said Fitzgerald, the chair of The United board of directors and president and chief executive officer of the Ocean Community YMCA.
“We’ve raised another $3.6 million since June,” said Fitzgerald, “which makes us confident we can start construction this year.”
Kehoe Construction will serve as the general contractor, she said, and will oversee the bidding process.
“Once the bids are in, we will review them and announce the groundbreaking ceremony,” she said.
When completed, the much-anticipated United 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.
Project leaders, including Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, who co-chairs the capital campaign along with philanthropist Charles “Chuck” Royce, envision a complex similar in concept to New York City’s Lincoln Center, where everything from opera, to dance to film, theatre and music can be taught, showcased and performed.
Although the theatre will be closed during construction, Fitzgerald said a series of United “pop-up” events are being planned throughout the roughly 12-month rebuilding process.
“We are not going dark,” she said.
Tony Nunes, who oversees events and marketing for the theatre, said the popular “Movies in the Park,” series, a collaboration with the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park, will continue in 2019, as will concerts, films and other cultural events. Some will be held at the Knickerbocker Music Center, he said.
Nunes said the Friends of the United Theatre, an all-volunteer group formed to help with events and programming, has been key to the success of the theatre thus far.
Fitzgerald said in addition to the efforts of the “hardworking board of directors,” Nunes and the Friends group have provided a critical piece of the fundraising efforts.
For instance, Nunes said, hundreds of people came to the theatre in July when actor Richard Jenkins, who was nominated for both a Golden Globe award and an Oscar for best supporting actor in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” came to the theatre for a Q&A following a showing of the film.
When jazz trumpeter Bruce Harris came to the United in August, he and his bandmates performed an extraordinary concert despite playing in the darkness, due to a power outage that blanketed the region that night.
“It was a wild and memorable night,” said Nunes, noting the symbolism in working through darkness and adversity. “It was like ... the show must go on.”
Fitzgerald said now that the “leadership” portion of the fundraising campaign has officially ended, the “Community Phase” can now begin. During the new phase, she said, requests for all sizes of donations will be sought to complete the project.
“Any size gift is welcome,” she said.
Initial efforts raised $6 million, which included community pledges, historical state tax credits, cultural bond funds and support from board members, Fitzgerald said. Then, in June, “with the tremendous support from our summer community,” the additional $3.6 million was raised.
In October, the theatre received a $233,000 grant from the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. It was one of nine Main Street RI Streetscape Improvement Fund grants announced by Gov. Gina Raimondo to help with the upgrade of the United’s façade, including its “integral marquee.”
Fitzgerald applauded the “highly involved” board of directors, including Royce and Algiere, Deborah Lamm, Patricia W. Chadwick, Harvey DeMovick, Kevin Kelly, Nicholas Moore, and others as being key to the success of the project thus far.
“Board members hosted a number of cultivation events, so people could come in and see and hear about the space and the transformation being planned,” she said.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” added Fitzgerald.
“We’re very pleased with the progress, we’re almost there,” said Algiere. “We are very appreciative of the community’s support.”
“At the end of the day,” he added, when the project is completed, and Westerly has a renovated center for the arts, United Theatre, it will be thanks to the support of the community.”