If the University of Rhode Island’s efforts to influence voter approval of a $125 million bond referendum are successful, construction of a new engineering facility will initiate state and university-wide improvements.

If approved, the Question 4 bond referendum will enable the construction of the largest taxpayer-financed construction project at URI in over 25 years.  The proposed 195,000-square-foot building would replace five of the 50+ year-old buildings on URI’s engineering quad, Crawford, Gilbreth, Kelly and Wales Halls and the Kelly Hall Annex.  The building would capitalize on the natural synergy of seven of URI’s eight engineering programs and upon completion is projected to attract an 18 percent raise in enrollment in the engineering program.

"Engineering Rhode Island's Future" - Credit: Ryan Wichelns/ The Good 5 Cent Cigar
“Engineering Rhode Island’s Future” – Credit: Ryan Wichelns/ The Good 5 Cent Cigar

Many engineering students at the university expressed sentiments that though URI’s program is an excellent one, its facilities are not updated to industry standards.  “We can’t be engineers in the 21st century if we’re working with technology from the 20th ,” Rachel Andronowitz, and industrial and systems engineering major in the German and International Engineering program said.

“Engineering is a very technology heavy area and the buildings we have right now are very old,”  Nicholas Paull, civil engineering major, said.  “They can’t even sustain the electrical needs we have most of the time.  It’s very important that we update our technology in such an evolving area like engineering.”

URI launched its “Engineering Rhode Island’s Future” campaign at a kick-off at Toray Plastics (America) Inc. at Quonset Point in North Kingstown on Monday.  A long-time partner with the URI engineering department, Toray has pledged $2 million in support of the bond.  Of the 77 degreed engineers that work at Toray, 23 are URI alumni.

“We’re proud to be one of the first corporations to stand up as a sponsor for the College of Engineering initiative with our pledge of $2 million towards this project,” President and CEO of Toray Michael Brandmeier said.  “We have a longstanding and extremely positive relationship with URI.”

“One of the things that will happen with this is we will create the new classrooms and laboratories so that we’ll have the space to teach all those students,” URI President David Dooley said.  “We’ll also be hiring new faculty in engineering as we grow the college of engineering.  That will easily enable us to grow the student body by 18 percent and even more.”

With an increase in student body size comes not only a need for classroom space and faculty, but also recreational and residential facilities.  According to URI Vice President of Student Affairs Thomas Dougan, the additional 200 to 300 seats the current renovations at Butterfield Dining Hall will create by 2015, new recreational facilities like the Fascitelli Fitness and Wellness Center and the construction new residential buildings near the Dairy Barn parking lot will help accommodate the increase.

“We have plans on the books to build four to five hundred new apartments that would open in the fall of ‘17,” Dougan said.  “Overall quality of facilities brings quality students.  [The engineering facility] will dramatically improve the quality of the engineering program which frankly is already quite good.  It’s going to be the best quality of any engineering school from John Hopkins to MIT.”

Over the next three years, the project is expected to create 1,500 construction and technical service jobs.  Not included in this number are the faculty and maintenance positions that the new building will likely require.

CEOs and presidents of over 30 Rhode Island companies have expressed support, both verbal and monetary, for the new engineering facility.  The Taco White Family Foundation announced on Tuesday that they will donate $400,000 to the College of Engineering, $300,000 of which will go towards naming a lab in the new facility.  The remaining $100,000 will fund the John Hazen White Scholarship.

“We compete globally,” Brandmeier said.  “What we need more than anything else is the people that come out of URI.  Those are the kind of people we want.

According to a 2013 economic impact study conducted by the Perryman Group, the College of Engineering contributes $142 million to the Rhode Island economy annually, a number that is expected by state officials to rise if this facility is created.

Governor Chafee speaks at Monday's event. - Credit: Ryan Wichelns/ The Good 5 Cent Cigar
Governor Chafee speaks at Monday’s event. – Credit: Ryan Wichelns/ The Good 5 Cent Cigar

“I’ve always said that the building blocks of a strong economy are higher education,” Governor Lincoln Chafee said.

Dooley encourages students to remain engaged and support their university’s future by remaining informed and endorsing Question 4.  Regardless of their major, Dooley said that the new facility would impact students positively.

“It’ll make everyones degree at URI more valuable because these kind of facilities put the university on the map in a new way,” Dooley said.  “This will be some of the best engineering facilities on the entire east coast.  People will notice that.  They will associate that with the University of Rhode Island.  If you’re a sociology major, the increase in the prominence in URI will help you because it will add value to your degree.  I would vote ten times if I could but I think I’m restricted to just one.”