WCU embarks on building spree

Renovations are underway at WCU’s Brown Hall, formerly Brown Cafeteria.
Photo donated to The Sylva Herald.

This story was written by Quintin Ellison, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Within two years, Western Carolina University leaders hope to start at least five construction projects with a total estimated worth of $226 million.

The campus building spree promises to transform WCU and boost the region’s economy. Campus leaders say when possible they’ll rely on local contractors.

Construction starts next year on a replacement Natural Sciences Building, fully funded at $110 million through the fall voter-approved Connect NC Bond project. University leaders also want to build a campus parking deck, two new residential halls and an indoor sports-practice facility.

And that’s not all.

Construction workers expect in May to complete $22.5 million worth of renovations to Brown Hall, formerly Brown Cafeteria. On WCU’s Millennial, or West, Campus, construction of a new medical office starts as soon as the university’s development partner, Summit Healthcare group of Winston-Salem, secures building tenants.

“Every project has a series of authorizations,” said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. “We are on the first few steps along the long road that must be followed for capital projects on a UNC system campus.”

MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books expects to open this month in newly built Noble Hall along WCU’s Centennial Drive. When that happens, the 420-bed, mixed-use facility, occupied by students since August, becomes fully operational, according to university spokesman Bill Studenc.

Four of the five businesses in Noble Hall are locally owned. The Board of Trustees hired Chancellor David Belcher in 2011. Since then, WCU has placed an emphasis on trying to include the region’s companies and businesses.

This willingness to look local is important to the finances of small-business owners in the area, according to Brad Tollie, owner of Sylva-based Tollie Landscaping. His 15-employee company is handling Noble Hall’s landscaping and hardscaping.

“It’s been a large project and a significant amount of work for us,” Tollie said. “It was a huge boost to me and to the men we employee. It’s been made even more significant because I’m back at the place I graduated from, to work and contribute to it.”

WCU officials plan to “reach out to local contractors, subcontractors and construction companies from across Western North Carolina to encourage them to get involved in the upcoming projects,” said Matt Ketchum, WCU’s director of facilities planning, design and construction.

University leaders will hold a series of regional contractor-outreach forums this spring to provide information about the university’s construction projects. “To the extent possible, we want to try to increase the number of local companies and workers involved in campus projects, including historically underutilized businesses in the region,” Ketchum said.

That means tapping companies that are 51 percent owned or managed by people of color, women, the disabled and those socially and economically disadvantaged, he said.

Here are WCU’s definite and possible projects:

• Brown Hall, a 55-year-old cafeteria, is undergoing $22.5 million in renovations. In addition to dining space, Brown will contain additional office space for residential living, campus services and more. The construction work is set to finish in May.

• WCU wants to build a 600-bed (or more) upper-campus residence hall between Buchanan and Judaculla, formerly Central Drive, halls. The WCU Board of Trustees reviews the project in June.

• In May, WCU will ask the UNC Board of Governors to authorize advance planning for a new 300-bed (or more) residence hall for the lower campus, possibly near Norton Hall.

• Two weeks ago, the Board of Governors authorized WCU to build a parking deck with up to 1,000 spaces. This summer, university leaders plan to seek legislators’ permission to issue debt for the estimated $24 million required. A site hasn’t been selected.

• An indoor sports-training facility, projected to cost between $10 million and $20 million, will be built on or near the Field House parking lot. The funding will be entirely through donations, according to officials.

• Both Scott and Walker dorms are scheduled for demolition, and potentially replacement, when the new upper and lower residence halls open.