FSU looks to expand uses for Warren Conference Center

[Brad Leuchte]

Since acquiring the Warren Conference Center and Inn in April, FSU administrators have begun discussing potential future uses for the 67-acre property, said Dale Hamel, executive vice president.   

FSU officially acquired the center from Northeastern University for $8 million.

The property, located at 529 Chestnut St, Ashland, is open to the public and hosts a variety of events, including weddings and work outings.

According to Hamel, the University doesn’t have any immediate changes in mind for the center. “In the short term, we are going to continue to run it as a conference center and inn.”

Hamel said prior to the purchase of the Warren Center, the University would have to rent conference venues.

There is a “10 percent discount from the standard fee schedule provided for any personal events booked by Framingham State University faculty, staff, students, or alumni,” according to the Warren Center event booking page.

Hamel said, “Going forward, we would also like to use it for student programs. There are a lot of opportunities that will arise as different people on campus find ways to utilize this new asset.”

He added that as a University service, the Warren Center falls under the jurisdiction of Jeffrey Hershberger, the director of university services. Hershberger oversees the day-to-day operations at the center.

While currently the Warren Center is being used for meetings, there are plenty of long term projects waiting to be implemented. “In the long term, we will be considering the possibility of adding some sports, specifically adding new women’s teams,” said Hamel.

He added, “The center could potentially be a location for a new sports venue.”

Besides sports, Hamel said the University is looking to use the conference center to bolster academic programs.

Currently, when the biology department wants water access, “We ship the canoes over in a trailer to Lake Cochituate. And once they are done, we haul them back. However, we can now store them at the center, which also has close water access,” said Hamel.

Hakansson also believes the center opens the door for academic possibilities. “Some of my colleagues have done outside lab work and they love it,” he said. “I enjoy bringing my students out for case studies at Warren Woods.”

Hakansson said the property is particularly useful for his resource management and municipal land use classes.

In the future, “It would be nice to have a class offered at the center itself,” said Hakansson.

Susan Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences, also has plans to utilize the center. “We plan to launch a new hospitality management major, and this major will be closely affiliated with the Warren Center,” she said.

Dargan said because the Warren Center is a fully functional hotel, it is ideal for providing students with “hands-on experience” in the field of hospitality management.

Furthermore, the inn includes 49 guest rooms, and a separate building on the site contains four suites. The property also has five cabins, which hold up to 12 guests each.

Ashland is also happy with the outcome of the purchase. “From a community relations perspective, the town is very pleased the center has been preserved, both as a conference center, an inn and as an open space,” Hamel said.

The alternative was to sell to a developer. However, “The town did not desire to see that as the outcome,” Hamel said.

He added while the town would have done better monetarily by selling to developers, “the land was originally gifted for both preservation and education. With our purchase, we were able to maintain its original purpose,” he said.

“Northeastern had a lot of pressure on them to work with us,” Hamel added.

According to Hamel, “Ashland is interested in acquiring the barn, so we are looking into selling it back to the town so they can renovate it.”

Furthermore, Hakansson said, “Ashland is very anxious to form coalitions with the University.”

The Warren center’s rich landscape also provides the art department with a new area for observation and inspiration, according to Hakansson,

“You feel like you’re part of something out there. Here, we’re right next to Route 9 and in recent years it’s been all construction. I said to the administration, ‘it’s hard to feel green when you’re in the middle of a construction site,’” said Hakansson. “When construction is constantly taking place, it’s hard to feel like part of an ecosystem.”

Some FSU students are not aware of the property.

Freshman Charlie Arrand said, “I didn’t even know we had access to such a place.”

Sophomore Ben Whitney said, “I know Becker has two campuses, one in Worcester and one in Leicester. To the same idea, it would be cool to see FSU extend programs from the main campus to the space available at the center.”

Hakansson said, “They need a way to bridge the Warren center to FSU. A shuttle running between the two may be beneficial in accomplishing this.”

Freshman Chris Mayor said, “I want to go see it, but I really don’t have much access to it unless they provide a shuttle.”

Hamel said the school plans to host an open house in the near future, specifically directed at students. “We need to get students out there. We need to show them what the center offers.”

Carl Hakansson, geography professor and chair of the Land Stewardship Committee at Warren Woods, has a vested interest in the campus’ acquisition of the center.

“I grew up right down the street from it, and at the time it was the Warren farm,” said Hakansson.

“When the Warrens passed away, they donated the land to Northeastern University, who started the Warren Center back in the 1960s,” he added.

Hakanson said the Warrens had initially offered the land to MIT, which was Warren’s alma mater, but they declined the offer.

“In the early ’90s the center became the Warren Conference Center, which was a step up for the center,” said Hakansson.

More recently, the property was divided up by Northeastern, according to Hakansson. A section of the property, known as the Warren Woods, was sold back to Ashland.

“Initially the woods were to be sold for housing developments, but the town of Ashland stepped in to preserve the conservation land,” he added.

According to Hamel, the acquisition of the Warren Center significantly expanded FSU’s available acreage. To put it in perspective, FSU’s main campus is 78 acres, meaning the purchase nearly doubled the campus’ land.

“The center adds something to Framingham State that we don’t have here, because we have such a small main campus,” said Hakansson. The center “expands the scope of possibilities for the University in getting their students outside.”

Senior Emily Hendrickson said, “It’s really pretty there. I hope they don’t build on the land but instead use it for events. I could see art students taking advantage of the beautiful landscape as well,” she added.   

Hakansson said the Warren Center is surrounded by an abundance of conservation land, such as Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary and the Ashland State Park.

There are “about 1,600 acres of contiguous conservation land,” said Hakansson.

Hamel said the opportunity-to-cost ratio was heavily in the University’s favor. “To be frank, the center came at a very little cost to us. Acquiring land is always difficult, so with the acquisition of the Warren Center we will have a lot of continued long-term growth, both athletic and administrative,” he said.

Hakansson remains invested in the center and is still taken aback by it. “I used to work at the Warren Center bailing hay when I was younger. I even remember when I was younger and it was still a farm, and you had to let the cows cross the street. Even after all this time I’m still in awe of how beautiful it is,” he said.

“It’s like walking into Fenway park for the first time,” he said.