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Back to the Future

Opened in 1956 and hardly touched since, Westfield State University’s Parenzo Hall will soon have a 21st-century feel and house 21st-century initiatives.

Ramon Torrecilha says that when it opened in 1956, Parenzo Hall, the first building on what was then Westfield State College’s new campus on Western Avenue, housed “pretty much everything.”

That included classrooms, the dining hall, a large auditorium, administrative offices — yes, everything, said Torrecilha, president of what is now Westfield State University.

Over time, many all of those facilities moved somewhere else. The dining commons went in Scanlon Hall, new classroom facilities were built, and a number of administrative offices were moved down Western Avenue to the building, acquired by the college nearly 20 years ago, that was once the world headquarters for Stanley Home Products, later Stanhome.

But Parenzo remains an important center of activity of the school, as home to everything from a gym to labs to gatherings in that auditorium. Yet, while still relevant, Parenzo needed a 21st-century feel, and, more importantly, a 21st-century function — or several of them.

It will get both as the university embarks on a $40 million project likely to commence in 2020.

Indeed, the building will be modernized and brought up to current codes. But even more importantly, it will be home to some forward-thinking initiatives, said Torrecilha, referring specifically to the planned Center for Innovation and Education and the Center for Student Success and Engagement.

The former will leverage technology and serve as what Torrecilha called the “nexus for innovative collaboration in Western Mass.” and partner with community colleges, K-12 school districts, and industry partners. The latter, meanwhile, will strive to improve student outcomes and also address the continuing decline in the number of working-age adults.

Parenzo’s auditorium was packed on July 10 as a number of civic and economic-development leaders, college faculty and staff members, and even some students were on hand to see and hear Gov. Charlie Baker and other members of his administration talk about the legislation known as H.4549, “An Act Providing for Capital Repairs and Improvements for the Commonwealth,” a bill Baker signed that afternoon amid considerable fanfare.

The measure authorizes nearly $4 billion to address statewide capital needs, including higher-education campuses, health and human services facilities, state office buildings, public-safety facilities, and courts.

Gov. Charlie Baker signs H.4549, which includes $21 million for Parenzo Hall.

When he was asked by BusinessWest what inspired state officials to direct $21 million of that money toward Parenzo Hall — an amount to be matched by the university itself — Torrecilha said it was much more than the need to put a modern face on a 62-year-old building that certainly needed one. “It’s never been renovated,” he noted. “We still have the original windows, there are ADA issues, and there are a host of other improvements that need to take place; it doesn’t even have air conditioning.”

Indeed, what certainly resonated, he said, was what the college intended to do with the new Parenzo.

And to determine what that new life would be, Torrecilha said he essentially “hit the road” and visited a number of the school’s partners — a large constituency that includes the four area community colleges, the K-12 community, especially in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce — asking what they would like to see and gain from a new Parenzo.

“I asked, ‘how would a renovated Parenzo help you advance your mission,’’ he recalled, adding quickly that the respective mission vary, obviously, and that fact was reflected in the answers to that inquiry.

And it also reflected in the broad new strategic plan for Parenzo and the two new centers that will be based there.

The ‘Center for Innovation in Education and Industry Partnerships,’ is aptly named, he explained, because it will focus on the two distinct and equally important initiatives.

“We intend to work very closely with industry in Western Mass. so the university can partner with them in create programs and curriculum that support their operations,” he explained, adding that the EDC and the chamber will among the partners in this endeavor. “It’s about engaging with industry, doing needs assessments, and then turning to our faculty and programs and say ‘how can we help this particular industry in developing more skills and knowledge (in perspective employees) so the business is supported.”

The university, its faculty, and administrators already engage in such conversations with industry leaders, but the new center will take the dialogue — and the various forms of response — to a much higher level.

Meanwhile, the center will also focus on innovation in education, with a strong focus on technology, Torrecilha noted, adding that there are a number of significant changes taking place in how subject is taught — or can be taught — and the center will work to help WSU various partners, including the K-12 community and the community colleges, make the most of this technology.

“Because of technology, the learning process is being revolutionized,” he explained. “Today, there are digital laboratories, and the way we are teaching chemistry, physics, and even biology is changing. Those days when people would dissect a frog … all that can now be done digitally, and one of the things I’m envisioning is for the center to work with the K-12 community and our community college partners to set up that kind of exchange and partnerships.”

Torrecilha said that work will soon begin to blueprint what the new Parenzo will look like and how its spaces will be apportioned. He doesn’t have specific answers yet, but did say the school will make the very most of what is still a valuable asset.

“The building is 90,000 square feet, and we’re going to use every inch of it,” he said.

Thus, the building most associated with the school’s past, will play a very prominent role in its future.

— George O’Brien