Construction on the United Theatre arts complex in Westerly starts Friday

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Many a construction project over the years has come and gone before reaching the actual building stage. After all, coming up with fabulous ideas is easy; it’s actually making them happen — and raising the money for them — that’s difficult.

That’s why the groundbreaking Friday for The United Theatre project in Westerly is so noteworthy.

With the 1:30 p.m. event, the former United Theatre and next-door Montgomery Ward building on Canal Street will be moving closer to transforming into an arts complex.

The United was built in 1926 as a vaudeville house, became a movie theater, and eventually closed in 1986. It remained unused for two decades before the Westerly Land Trust bought it in 2006.

Since the idea to convert that building began percolating, a lot of organizing has happened. The serious fundraising began a little over a years ago. The fundraising goal is $12 million, and so far, $10 million has been raised, according to information the theater provided about the groundbreaking ceremony. That includes $3 million from the 20 members of the board of directors; $2.37 million from a Rhode Island Creative and Cultural Economy Bond; and 29 individual donations of $100,000 or more.

What this all will fund is a renovated site that will feature spaces that can be used for entertainment, education and more.

A black box theater will host performing arts performances and can hold 650 audience members; it can also be divided into smaller spaces and be used for a variety of purposes.

A cinema will offer first-run and revival films and can accommodate 90 viewers.

Plans call for an art gallery and an education center, the latter of which will be home to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School.

After Friday’s groundbreaking, the construction is expected to continue over the next year, with the grand opening happening in the autumn of 2020.

Maureen N. Fitzgerald, who is chair of The United’s board, says it feels fantastic that the project has reached this point. In addition, the reaction from the public has been “very, very positive. They’re pleased that it’s happening,” she says.

Fitzgerald says it’s all part of helping to make downtown Westerly a thriving place for people who live there and who want to visit there.

“Downtown Westerly has been going through a revitalization for several years,” Fitzgerald says, mentioning some of the institutions in town, including the Savoy Bookshop, the Westerly Education Center, the Knickerbocker, the YMCA, the Westerly Library, the Chorus of Westerly and the Granite Theatre.

“I think this really is the last piece in the puzzle of the whole campus of things people can enjoy,” she says.

Fitzgerald says it’s going to be a unique arts center, a regional venue that will bring additional culture and events to downtown Westerly. It will be used year-round and will, she says, be a “wonderful opportunity for people to experience these various programs.”

It will also serve as an economic driver, bringing people to the area who then might stop in at downtown businesses and restaurants. Fitzgerald notes that The United will employ some part-time workers as well as a full-time executive director.

Fitzgerald says a lot of the credit for the project goes to Chuck and Deborah Royce and the Royce Family Fund (Royce’s many projects have included rebuilding the Ocean House in Watch Hill) as well as to Sen. Dennis Algiere, who, with Chuck Royce, are capital campaign co-chairs.

Friday’s groundbreaking will be attended by United Theatre board of directors, staff, volunteers, local and regional dignitaries, project managers, and creative partners.

Fitzgerald also notes that anyone who wants to donate toward the project can go to the United Theatre website, at www.unitedtheatre.org.

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