On its 50th anniversary, URI Alton Jones director proud to have ‘reinvented’ campus

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WEST GREENWICH, R.I. – June 14, 2012 – Thomas Mitchell has been the man in charge of the University of Rhode Island’s W. Alton Jones Campus for nearly 25 years, and as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Mitchell is looking back at how the campus has changed and looking ahead at how to make it even better.

The Warwick resident took over responsibility for the Alton Jones site back when the original buildings – turn-of-the-century farm houses, summer homes built in the 1930s, and numerous out-buildings — were falling into disrepair and long before the campus became a site for destination weddings.

“I’m really proud that we’ve totally re-invented the campus in the years since I came here,” said Mitchell. “We’ve renovated almost every building, we’ve added Sycamore Lodge and a new cabin, and we’ve entered the wedding business.”

The 2,300-acre property was donated to URI in 1962 by the wife of oil executive W. Alton Jones, who died in a plane crash. Jones had used the property as a hunting lodge, where he entertained business leaders and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Soon after taking ownership, URI began offering it to businesses and community groups as a conference center, and an environmental education center was built to offer youth camps and outdoor education programming.

“We’ve really changed the culture of the campus to be entirely customer focused,” said Mitchell, noting that campus revenues grew from $230,000 in 1985 when he arrived to $3.4 million last year. “We’ve really progressed in everything that we do.”

Mitchell, who grew up in North Providence, worked at the Urban Education Center at Rhode Island College before taking his first administrative position at the Alton Jones Campus in 1985. His background in educational administration and community planning was a perfect fit.

“There were a lot of reasons that made sense for me to come to Alton Jones,” Mitchell said. “The job is somewhat similar to community planning – take a property and develop it. It’s about strategic planning, adding facilities, building a wedding business and responding to the marketplace.”

The economic environment in recent years has taken a toll, which has forced Mitchell to be creative in positioning the campus to best serve the community.

“We have lots of competition, and they all want to do what we’re doing,” he said. “We have a great reputation in Rhode Island, and what we offer is unparalleled in New England – a former estate where business groups can meet in a distraction-free environment, a beautiful wedding destination, and youth camps that are consistently rated tops in the region.

“The challenge is to identify the appropriate next steps to take,” Mitchell added. “How do we continue to develop and advance what we’ve done? We can’t stay static, we’ve got to keep fresh and make the right investment decisions.”

An avid golfer who has taught an introductory computer science course at the Community College of Rhode Island for many years, Mitchell says he could retire shortly, but he’s having too much fun to make that decision any time soon.

“When you come to Alton Jones, you’re really going to have an experience that you will remember,” he said. “It will be an experience reminiscent of something in your past — the night sky, a nature walk, an activity that you do, something you see. There’s a lot of places you can get food and a room, but the experience here is something special.

“I feel good about what I’ve done at Alton Jones. I’ve had a great career at URI, and I couldn’t have asked for more. Most of the good things in my life have come from my affiliation with higher education in Rhode Island. And there’s more to come.”

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Joe Giblin