When North Carolinians go to the polls Tuesday, March 15, to select nominees for the U.S. presidency and other important federal, state and local offices, they also will find on the ballot an issue that is of tremendous significance for Western Carolina University. Voters will be asked to approve a $2 billion bond package that would provide financing for major projects for the University of North Carolina system, community colleges, state parks, agriculture, the National Guard, and water and sewer infrastructure.
Of that $2 billion total, $980 million is designated for the 17 institutions of the UNC system. Most paramount to the Catamount Nation is that this bond referendum includes $110 million for the replacement of WCU’s obsolete Natural Sciences Building.
If you are among those who studied — or attempted to — in that facility, especially in recent years, you know it is in very poor shape. The structure was built in the 1970s and is as threadbare as the bell-bottoms some of us wore then. We cannot patch or repair it anymore. But the building is more than merely out-of-fashion and outdated; it impedes the process of teaching and learning science in the 21st century.
Our university is the largest—and in some fields the only—educational institution in Western North Carolina preparing students to meet continually growing regional workforce demands in health care, high-tech manufacturing, and natural products development. Each of these fields represents significant economic development growth potential for the region and the state. That growth is largely dependent on our ability to meet workforce needs, and we cannot meet those needs in our existing science building. In order to produce the graduates demanded by the region and state, we must increase our capacity in courses such as chemistry and biology that are foundational to science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) programs.
Simply put, we are maxed out. When the current science facility was built, WCU had only 15 nursing majors and no engineering majors. Today, the university has roughly 2,300 students majoring in nursing and other health and human science programs, and almost 600 in technology and engineering programs. In addition, we have approximately 500 students enrolled in biological and physical science programs.
Beyond all the numbers, people near and dear to your hearts have a personal stake in passing this bond referendum — the students in nursing and health sciences, engineering, forensic science and others, who must take courses in biology, chemistry and physics. They need to and deserve to learn in 21st-century classrooms and laboratories. These are the young people who will make up the workforce of tomorrow. We are at a pivotal point in deciding their future.
If we can grow the number of students able to study in STEM disciplines through the expanded opportunities offered by a new state-of-the-art science building, we also will be able to grow the workforce in engineering, health sciences, natural sciences and the technology sector. Having a larger highly trained workforce in these fields will help attract more business and industry to the region and state, creating more job opportunities and stimulating the economies of our communities.
Here are a few more facts so that you go fully informed into your polling place March 15. This bond package is a bipartisan initiative proposed initially by Gov. Pat McCrory as Connect NC and later endorsed by the General Assembly. In fact, the governor visited campus last May to see for himself the deplorable conditions that students in our STEM disciplines currently face (see http://governorvisit.wcu.edu).
I also can tell you that, according to fiscal research from the General Assembly, passage of the bond will not require additional tax burden for North Carolinians. Because of historically low interest rates and the retirement of existing debt, issuance of the bond will not increase the total tax-supported debt in the state beyond what it is today. The bond amount is still well below the suggested state limit for debt service as a percentage of General Fund revenue. Best of all, North Carolina’s stellar credit rating will remain Triple A even after issuing a $2 billion bond — that’s a credit rating that many other states covet. There never has been a better time to invest in North Carolina.
Although the potential replacement of our outdated science building and the impact it would have for our students and our future workforce is significant, there’s a lot more at stake. The bond proposal includes projects in all four corners of North Carolina. In addition to funding for construction, repair and renovation at our state universities and community colleges, local water, sewer and other infrastructure projects would receive $300 million in loans and grants, while National Guard and public safety agencies would get $70 million to modernize facilities. Another $180 million would be invested in agriculture, with $100 million going to our state park system and the North Carolina zoo.
I trust that you see the magnitude of the matter before us and understand the implications that March 15 will have on the future of our university and our state. I also hope that this information has been educational, and that you will read our cover story about the importance of STEM education at WCU and its implications for our region and state. For more information about the bond issue, visit the website
David O. Belcher,