New higher ed center a ‘stepping stone’ for Main Street

New higher ed center a ‘stepping stone’ for Main Street

State officials are targeting the third floor of Main Street’s Commercial Block for a technical education center first announced in 2018. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – It was a bright spot in the city’s educational future when state officials launched the concept two years ago, and now, city officials are calling the proposed location of the Northern Rhode Island Higher Education Center “the biggest news in decades for Main Street.”

The project, a $4 million technical education center first announced in 2018, is expected to host big-name employers like CVS, Fidelity and AAA along with educational partners including Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island in classroom-type spaces for training future employees. Loosely modeled on the Westerly Higher Education Center, Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state officials pitched the idea as a key piece of the state’s career and technical education plans during a press conference outside City Hall almost two years ago this week.

After the initial announcement, the state went silent about the project, revealing little except to indicate they were seeking a location. That is, until this week, when news broke the educational hub will be located inside the Commercial Block, a vacant former commercial stretch at 95 through 117 Main Street.

“To me, this is the biggest news in decades for Main Street. I am really thankful that Woonsocket was chosen,” Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told The Breeze.

Along with bringing in educational opportunities for area residents, the project now offers hope as an economic driver for a section of Main Street that has seen little in the way of investment in recent years. Once home to a series of small businesses, the property was foreclosed on in 2010. At the time, tenants complained of water leakage and general neglect, as well as a lack of heating and unpaid utility bills.

In 2011, investors Christopher and George Stamatos purchased the property, leading to hope the historic structure would see new life. But the problems continued under the new owners, and the building was eventually vacated due to a failure to meet fire and building codes.

Those concerns were raised by Rep. Michael Morin, a former city fire marshal and outgoing state representative, when he broke the news of the lease in a social media post this week. Morin questioned whether the location was appropriate for the new education center given the owners’ past history of code violations.

Morin declined to comment on the matter to The Breeze, but Baldelli-Hunt said those issues have since been resolved. Acknowledging the past history of problems in the building, she said the owners have worked closely with city fire and inspections officials to bring the property up to code.

“This is keeping our history alive on Main Street,” she said.

Baldelli-Hunt said the center is expected to take up the entire third floor of the building, a 15,000 square foot space. In addition to offering new investment in the structure, she anticipates the project will spur additional development in the storefronts below and other buildings along Main Street, offering a steady stream of foot traffic as students enter the property.

“This is the stepping stone that leads to other successes on Main Street,” she said.

That perspective was shared by Garrett Mancieri, a local real estate agent and City Council candidate who helped develop the initial proposal for the project. Mancieri, who serves as executive director of the Downtown Woonsocket Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that aims to revitalize the area, said he expects the project will help fill other vacancies along the center of Main Street.

“I really feel like this is going to be a huge boost to the middle of Main Street,” he said “That’s not only going to fill that space, but that’s also going to encourage other businesses to move into that space.”

Mancieri was among those who gave tours to state officials when they were looking for a location in 2018. At the time, project coordinators were targeting Bernon Mills as a potential site, but those plans fell through due to the cost of renovating the space, according to Baldelli-Hunt.

Mancieri said he was not involved with the most recent bid to locate the center in the Commercial Block, but was glad to hear it would be coming to Main Street.

The choice came about as a result of an RFP issued by the state, according to Baldelli-Hunt. The owners of the Commercial Block responded to the RFP, and the state began putting together an agreement to lease the space over 10 years for a total cost of $2.2 million.

The location is not a done deal. Today, Thursday, July 9, the House Finance Committee, of which Morin is a member, will hear a proposal to add the lease agreement to the fiscal year 2021 state budget. In addition to the building’s condition, Morin raised concerns that funds initially set aside for the project in 2019 might only be eligible toward construction costs and not a lease.

After clearing the House Finance Committee, the plans will have to make their way through the state budget process, which is expected to be tumultuous this year due to COVID-19. Baldelli-Hunt acknowledged the uncertainty, but said she expects the funds set aside two years ago to help boost the project forward.

“They are very anxious to get started on the retrofit,” she said.