When images by WCU photographer Mark Haskett ’87 of the demolition of Bob’s Mini-Mart and other businesses in the center of campus hit the university’s Facebook page this summer, they prompted a huge outpouring of nostalgia and expressions of concern for the store’s namesake, Bob Hooper, and other business owners. Many alumni called it “the end of an era” and lamented the loss of an iconic part of campus, while others said they were looking forward to the new commercial and residential facility that will rise like the mythical phoenix from the ashes of the past.
Construction of a mixed-used facility on the site of the much-loved mini-mart is just one of a handful of projects in the works or on the drawing board for WCU in the coming years. A $22.5 million renovation of Brown Cafeteria is in the early stages of work, while university officials in late spring selected a developer to build a medical office building adjacent to the Health and Human Sciences Building. Meanwhile, at press time, legislators were debating a possible statewide bond referendum that could result in as much as $115 million for a new science building at WCU. “It is not outside the realm of possibility that we could be in the midst of four major construction projects in the next year or two,” said Chancellor David O. Belcher.
Although construction of a MIXED-USE FACILITY to replace the commercial strip along Centennial Drive has been an element of the university’s master plan, it was originally envisioned as a project that would not see the light of day for several years. But then a November 2013 fire severely damaged three restaurants on the ground floor of the two-story structure that had been the site of The Townhouse restaurant, a popular gathering spot for students from the 1940s until the mid-1980s. University officials weighed numerous options concerning what to do with the property, owned by the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, before finally determining that demolition of the fire-damaged structure and adjacent buildings, including Bob’s Mini-Mart, followed by construction of a new mixed-used facility, was the most cost-effective step.
The 120,000-square-foot replacement will be a mix of residential units and commercial and dining establishments on the ground floor, with residential spaces on the upper floors. It is expected to contain a total of about 420 beds, which will help meet housing needs related to increasing student enrollment and enable the university to begin to renovate older residence halls, said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. Owners of businesses located in the commercial strip have the right of first refusal to seek space in the new building, said Mary Ann Lochner, university general counsel. Target completion date is August 2016.
Just around the corner, BROWN BUILDING will undergo a major facelift and expansion to include the addition of 25,000 square feet of space to its existing 30,000 square feet. The 53-year-old building was originally used as a cafeteria, but dining operations moved out in 2010 when the university opened Courtyard Dining Hall. The original plan called for the project to be completed by the opening of the fall 2016 semester, but delays have pushed that timeline back to spring 2017. “Unlike a housing facility, which you can open only in August, you can open a dining facility mid-year,” Byers said. “In fact, when you open a dining facility mid-year, you give students a nice change of pace in terms of their eating options.”
Work on the project is now slated to begin in spring 2016. When completed, the renovated Brown Building will be home to food services and dining spaces, plus residential living administration offices. The structure will feature a new facade that faces toward the center of campus and a large outdoor dining area. Together, the Brown and mixed-used facility projects will result in “transformative building” that will enhance the appearance of center campus, said Byers.
Across N.C. Highway 107, work is expected to get underway in early 2016 on a MEDICAL OFFICE BUILDING, which will be the first privately developed structure to be built at WCU as part of the Millennial Initiative. A comprehensive regional economic development strategy, the Millennial Initiative is designed to enable the university to engage in public-private partnerships that enhance educational opportunities for students and increase the ability of faculty to conduct research, while also promoting regional development. When completed in early 2017, the building should encompass at least 30,000 square feet of space that will be home to a mix of offices for health care professionals and space for health-related businesses, said Tony Johnson ’78 MBA ’80 MPA ’91, executive director of millennial initiatives.
In the meantime, university officials are seeking support for state funding for a new facility that would replace WCU’s existing NATURAL SCIENCES BUILDING, which was originally built in the 1970s and is no longer considered suitable for science education. In the spring, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory included funding for the building in his “Connect NC” bond proposal that would include $504 million for the University of North Carolina system. The $114.9 million proposed for WCU would be used to replace a building constructed when the university had only 15 nursing majors and no engineering majors. Today, WCU has about 2,300 students in health and human sciences programs, nearly 600 in technology and engineering programs, and about 500 in biological and physical science programs. McCrory visited campus in May seeking support for the proposal, which must be endorsed by the General Assembly in order to be placed on the ballot for consideration by voters statewide.
A final campus project will result in the demolition of a 35-unit FACULTY-STAFF APARTMENT COMPLEX that has provided short-term housing opportunities for WCU employees since the 1960s. Located off Long Branch Road across from the main campus, the complex will be leveled and replaced by a parking lot to help alleviate the anticipated parking crunch expected to accompany the addition of more than 400 beds to the university’s inventory of student housing in fall 2016.