NEW DINING AND RETAIL FACILITY

New mixed-use facility to rise from the ashes of November fire

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

Demolition of property in the center of campus damaged by a November fire got underway in March, with a new mixed-use facility consisting of dining and retail establishments and student residential space expected to rise on the site by August 2016. The arrival of bulldozers came after the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the commercial strip along Centennial Drive where the fire occurred, decided in February against replacing or repairing three dining establishments damaged in the blaze.

Campus Fire

Backhoes and bulldozers raze commercial property in the center of campus damaged by fire last November.

In reaching its conclusion, the board reviewed cost estimates, tax assessments and anticipated insurance settlement proceeds, also considering the historic significance of the property, the contributions to WCU culture made by private businesses operating in the center of campus, and ongoing support by the campus community for owners and employees of the affected businesses.

An independent architectural and engineering firm provided a series of estimates on the cost to replace or repair damaged buildings occupied by Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito, and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe. The cost of replacing the damaged property, including additional expenses associated with bringing a structure originally built in the 1940s up to current building codes, would have been more than $1.5 million. Jackson County’s records set the tax value of the structure at $254,430.

In order to rebuild, state law would have required numerous physical improvements called for by current building codes. County and state officials also recommended these improvements, such as making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, be made at parts of the property not affected by the fire, such as Bob’s Mini Mart.

The board could have opted to tap into its assets to make up the difference between the pending insurance settlement and the cost to repair or replace, but the majority of those assets are restricted. Interest earned by the unrestricted portion of the fund’s assets is used for academic purposes, including student scholarships. Tapping those unrestricted assets would have reduced funds available for scholarships, already at an unacceptably low level, said Teresa Williams, chair of the Endowment Fund board.

“Quite honestly, we felt we had no choice but to proceed in this direction,” Williams said. “While we understand the affection that many in our campus community feel for these establishments and this property, we cannot in good conscience divert precious dollars designated to scholarships for students and other academic support.”

The board will select a private developer who will lease the site from the university, finance and build the mixed-use facility, and rent commercial space to business enterprises. All structures currently located along the commercial strip will eventually be removed. Development of a mixed-use facility is among recommendations in the campus master plan, approved by the WCU Board of Trustees in December. Owners of the existing establishments will have the right of first refusal for commercial space in the new building. In the meantime, the Mad Batter announced plans to open a dinner theater establishment in Sylva and Rolling Stone Burrito is working with a food truck enterprise.