Construction of a 21st-century-gagued learning center capable of both face-to-face interaction and technology-driven distance learning simultaneously, is now underway in Alexandria with funds from the world’s wealthiest individual. Once dedicated, it will bear his mother’s name.
Totally out of view of Alexandrians who pass by it everyday, the Mary Gates Learning Center, named after Microsoft mogul Bill Gates’s mother, is taking shape within the old training center of the United Way Worldwide headquarters at 701 N. Fairfax St. It’s primary purpose is to further the United Way’s new mission: “To improve lives by mobilizing the power of caring communities around the world to advance the common good.”
This 35,000 square-foot, $11.9 million structural transformation will include a spacious see-through lobby that can double as a large event area, two levels of break-out meeting and conference rooms clustered around a dual-level central auditorium/theater and a meeting/teaching core that can be subdivided. The renovation also includes an archive area and a glass-lined balcony walkway that connects to the main offices of United Way’s headquarters. It is a far cry from the original two-story training/audio-visual pod built in 1982 as part of the headquarters complex.
“When this building was built, the entire audiovisual training approach and physical requirements were very different,” said Joseph V. Haggerty, COO and executive vice president of United Way Worldwide. “Our studio had to be two stories high just to accommodate the lighting and sound needs.”
United Way trains about 2,500 of its professionals and volunteers on-site each year both nationally and internationally. The new site will be available for use by other organizations on a rental basis, according to Haggerty.
“We’ve already been contacted by a variety of organizations interested in utilizing the new facility,” he said. “One of those is the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.”
That was buttressed by Alexandria Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tina Leone.
“It’s going to be a terrific addition to both Alexandria’s business and nonprofit communities. I would like to use it to strengthen relationships with our sister cities’ Chambers of Commerce both through teleconferencing and holding functions there when representatives visit,” she said.
The entire cost of the center comes from United Way donors with the lion’s share, a $4 million plus commitment, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Mary Gates, Bill Gates’ late mother, served in leadership roles on the United Way of America Board of Governors and was “an active member of the United Way International Board,” according to the center’s fundraising brochure.
Internally designed on a circular concept, the center offers a variety of training and conference rooms of various sizes and configurations on both levels that are accessed by a wrap-around hallway that defines the core. The first level of that core houses a 150-plus seat auditorium and stage which can be divided in half by a flexible breakwall. The core’s second level includes capabilities for webinars and teleconferencing to facilitate distance learning, as well as a modern A/V production studio.
“This will greatly increase our capabilities to offer training to those who cannot get here personally to participate,” said Christopher D. Keightley, vice president of information technology of United Way Worldwide. “It also enhances the center’s capabilities for other organizations who might want to use it.”
Designed by TPG Architects of New York City, the new Learning Center does not exceed the original footprint of the old training facility. It is scheduled for a soft opening in late July with a formal dedication after Labor Day, according to Haggerty.
“We want to use the time between those two events to work out any bugs, as always occur no matter how careful you are in construction,” Haggerty said. He also expressed the hope that both Bill Gates and his father will be present for the dedication ceremony.