WATERTOWN — For years, there was talk about the impact that Jefferson Community College would have if it had a downtown presence.
In about 15 months, that longtime goal is about to become a reality.
JCC is partnering with Neighbors of Watertown to open an education center in the old Strand Theater and in an adjacent building containing six storefronts on Franklin Street.
On Monday morning, JCC and Neighbors kicked off their project to turn the 120-year-old building and adjacent storefronts into the Jefferson Community College downtown entrepreneurship center.
“We’re excited for the college campus and the community,” said Megan Stadler, JCC’s vice president of strategic initiatives.
The college’s Small Business Development Center is now located at the JCC campus.
The partners will use $2.5 million in Downtown Revitalization Initiative funding to redevelop the buildings to support entrepreneurs and offer workforce development training and applied learning opportunities.
During a news conference on Monday, JCC and state economic development officials conducted tours of the old buildings and described how they will be converted into the educational center.
They also expressed their excitement that JCC will continue downtown’s revitalization. The center also will attract students and entrepreneurs to the city’s business district.
Neighbors executive director Reginald J. Schweitzer Jr. envisions lower Franklin Street will be transformed into the hub of downtown.
“It’s going to make a big difference downtown,” he said, stressing that nearby buildings also will be getting exterior face lifts soon.
The former Strand Theater will be the centerpiece of the facility, with a large meeting room to accommodate 150 people, an audio/visual room, and a conference room.
A mezzanine atrium also will lead to a roof patio and garden. The center also will offer coworker office space.
In addition, the new center will help revitalize a section of Franklin Street that previously was neglected.
The storefronts were previously going to undergo major facade renovations under the DRI program, but they were never completed. Now they will be.
Work on “the core construction” is slated to start in about 60 days, Mr. Schweitzer said.
The project should be completed in about 15 months.
The Department of State oversees the city’s $10 million DRI program, while Empire Statement Development also has been involved in the project.
The college plans to publish a survey to garner local feedback on a name for the new space.
JCC originally planned on a different project with the DRI funding but the pandemic and lower enrollment put those efforts on hold.
“Neighbors’s participation is the reason for the project,” Ms. Stadler said.
Neighbors, a local housing and redevelopment organization, purchased the old theater and storefronts last year.
During their tour, Donald Foote remembered when he owned a hair and tanning salon, The Oasis, in two of the storefronts during the 1970s.
“I think it’s awesome to see these two old buildings be brought back to life again,” he said.
The Strand was Watertown’s first theater to offer movies. It closed during the 1950s and then was used as a series of restaurants and bars.
Most recently, the building housed Club Rio night club until it closed following a shooting.
Neighbors hopes to find tenants for two of the storefronts, Mr. Schweitzer said.