Westerly Education Center touted as public-private success story
Westerly — Rhode Island Rep. Sam Azzinaro recalled how it began.
“It was three years and 10 days ago,” the Westerly Democrat said Friday before a ribbon-cutting for the $5.1 million Westerly Education Center, the product of a public-private collaboration that’s transformed an abandoned railroad yard.
Azzinaro and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary at the Ocean House when philanthropist Charles “Chuck” Royce approached.
“He said what we need in downtown Westerly is a community college,” Azzinaro said.
Within weeks, they were meeting with the speaker of the state House of Representatives, who said they’d need a tenant ... Electric Boat.
“That’s when the ball starting rolling,” Azzinarro said.
On Friday, Rhode Island politicians and government officials, including Gov. Gina Raimondo; state House Speaker Nicholas Mattielo; General Treasurer Seth Magaziner; state Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly; and Azzinarro joined state education leaders and EB executives in celebrating Royce’s vision.
“I am filled with gratitude,” Raimondo said, citing the contributions of Royce, his wife, Deborah, and the Royce Family Fund, which has provided $1.8 million for the project. Raimondo reminded those gathered for the ceremony that the education center’s Friendship Street location was a brownfields site whose cleanup the state funded.
She said that the first call she received as governor came from Jeff Geiger, the EB president, who was worried that EB wouldn’t be able to find all the skilled employees it would need to keep up with its growing workload.
“He said, ‘You have to help us up-skill people,’” Raimondo said.
With EB and the Community College of Rhode Island lined up as tenants, the education center began to take shape in the spring of 2015. The center's first class of Electric Boat hires from the submarine-builder’s Quonset Point facility in North Kingstown, R.I., began training in early January. Weeks later, CCRI began offering classes at the center.
Amy Grzybowski, the center’s executive director, said 147 of EB’s Quonset Point employees have completed or are near to completing training in pipefitting and sheet metal work. A mock-up of a submarine’s hull at the facility enables trainees to practice their new skills in addition to undergoing classroom instruction. Two shifts of classes are held daily.
In June, job candidates offered employment at EB’s Groton shipyard will begin training, Grzybowski said. Their hiring will be contingent on their successful completion of the program, which has been developed with the help of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board.
“It’s a true dual-state partnership,” Grzybowski said.
In addition to CCRI, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Rhode Island School of Design have begun, or soon will begin, offering classes at the center, which features 15 classrooms, two computer labs and a meeting/multi-use room. All of the classrooms are equipped with 65-inch flat-screen monitors, whiteboards and speakers, and Wi-Fi service is available throughout the building.
Businesses can rent space in the center for training sessions, meetings, webinars and other activities.
"Can you believe this was built in less than two years, on budget and on time?" asked Royce, who said his motivation in pursuing the project went beyond bringing a community college to Westerly.
He wanted to "strengthen downtown," too, he said.