The University understands the questions and concerns raised by many Rhode Islanders and numerous URI community members since we decided to close two operations on the W. Alton Jones Campus — the Whispering Pines Conference Center and Environmental Education Center.
We are also disappointed, but given widespread cancellations for the use of the two facilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other longstanding financial issues, we felt they were our best course of action. We did not take such steps without long and difficult deliberations about a place that we have supported and developed to serve the young people and professionals of Rhode Island and beyond.
The campus remains open and is an important locus of research projects and field work for classes in our environmental sciences, which have been a central part of the campus since its earliest days. Its 2,300 acres of woodlands, farmland and waterways have given generations of children and adults experiences that they still treasure today. We can assure everyone that the importance, meaning and impact of the campus on Rhode Island will figure prominently in our discussions as we plan its future use.
Question: The statement I’ve seen says that the Whispering Pines Conference Center and the Environmental Education Center are closing. What about the Alton Jones campus as a whole? Will it remain open and in use for other purposes? Are there other buildings or facilities there that are remaining open?
Answer: The campus grounds are not closed. They remain open for research projects and field work for classes in our environmental sciences, which have been a central part of the campus since its earliest days. In fact, when the University took possession of the land, about 1,000 acres were permanently set aside as a research preserve. Over the years, URI faculty and students have conducted research on wildflowers, salamanders and their movements, aquatic life and the health of the campus’ ponds and ecosystem, fish populations in comparison with those in heavily developed portions of the state, white-tailed deer and erosion control among many others.
Question: NBC10 reported that the road to the campus is blocked off. Wouldn’t it usually be open? Why is it closed?
Answer: Security measures were implemented March 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the employees were working remotely, and fewer people were on the campus. We limited access to the public for their own safety because there would be no one available if they needed help. Prior to this action, even during full operations the campus was generally not open to visitors in order to ensure the safety of the children enjoying the campus for school field trips and camps and professionals attending conferences.
Question: Someone told us that when Alton Jones (or his family) bequeathed the land to the university they requested that it be preserved and used for education. Is that correct?
Answer: According to an official history of the campus, published in 2012 to mark the campus’ 50 anniversary, the gift of what was then Hianloland Farm to the University from Nettie Marie Jones, the wife of W. Alton Jones, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, was “made without restriction, which meant that everything that remained on the property–from the buildings, to the towels, to the farm animals and equipment–was included in the gift.” At the dedication on April 18, 1964, Francis Horn, the URI president at the time, envisioned a place that would welcome urban children who could learn and benefit from programs “that develop in young people a sense of adventure and purpose.”
Question: What are the University’s plans for the campus now that the buildings are closing?
Answer: The campus grounds will remain open for research activities and field work for URI students. The history of the campus and its role in environmental education and research will be central to our discussions about its future.
Question: In regard to the cancellation of summer camps, how many children and how many counselors and other staff are affected?
Answer: For the discontinued summer camps we were expecting about 1,000 campers and counselors.
Question: I know that weddings are held at the campus. Are there plans to still hold weddings there this summer?
Answer: We discontinued weddings a few years ago because they weren’t profitable.
Question: Are there plans to sell the land?
Answer: There are no plans to sell the land.
Question: Would this decision have been made if the coronavirus pandemic had not occurred?
Answer: The Whispering Pines Conference Center and the Environmental Education Center on the W. Alton Jones Campus of the University of Rhode Island have been struggling financially for several years. The decision to close them in early July comes after many efforts by the University to improve the financial situation.
Given COVID-19 related health and safety directives enacted this year to support summer camps and events, the University determined it would be cost prohibitive to try to maintain these activities in the current financial climate. We know that Whispering Pines and the EEC have been enjoyed and supported by thousands of adults and youngsters.
Seventeen staff members are currently employed at the campus. A maintenance crew will remain on site and where possible employees will be placed in available positions at the University to minimize employment impacts from this decision.