A replacement for Western Carolina University’s outdated Natural Sciences Building – home to classrooms for burgeoning programs in science, technology, engineering and health care – is among the projects that would be funded by a statewide bond proposal on the ballot for the March 15 primary election. The $2 billion Connect NC bond initiative includes $110 million in funding to replace a science facility constructed in the early 1970s and no longer considered suitable for science education. The WCU building represents the largest single item among the new construction, renovation and infrastructure projects across the state.
The Natural Sciences Building needs to be replaced so that the university can provide more graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) fields to meet growing regional workforce demands in Western North Carolina in health care, high-tech manufacturing and natural products development, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher said. “When the current science facility was built, WCU had only 15 nursing majors and no engineering majors,” Belcher said. “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.”
In 2014-15, WCU awarded 59 bachelor’s degrees in biology, with another 10 master’s degrees; 25 degrees in emergency medical care; 26 in nutrition and dietetics; 43 in recreational therapy; 23 in communication sciences and disorders; and 107 in nursing. That’s along with 22 chemistry degrees, 12 in forestry science, 10 in electrical engineering and another 23 in engineering technology. Since the 2010-11 academic year, the university has experienced 95 percent growth in nursing, with athletic training growing 114 percent and environmental science 118 percent. In recent years, WCU has seen a steep climb in enrollment in chemistry and biology courses, classes required for STEM degree programs. Include a new forensic science degree program and there is tremendous pressure on the gateway chemistry and biology courses.
Statewide, the Natural Sciences Building has become a rallying symbol for bond proponents, including North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who toured the facility last May. “It’s not if you need a new building, it’s when are you going to do it,” McCrory said during that visit, pointing out broken ceiling tiles and antiquated lab equipment. “The longer you wait, the more expensive it’s going to get, and the less productivity you’re going to have with your students. These, in the real estate world, would be considered D-minus buildings, which would be torn down.”
A campaign to support passage of the bond package, the first statewide bond referendum in more than 15 years, kicked off Jan. 5 in Raleigh. Of the $2 billion in the proposal, more than $1.3 billion would go toward construction and renovation projects at the 17 University of North Carolina system institutions and the state’s 58 community colleges. In addition, the bond package would provide financing for projects for the state park system, the Department of Agriculture, the North Carolina Zoo and the National Guard, and to help local governments pay for water and sewer infrastructure initiatives.
Bond supporters say that the time is right to borrow the money for the projects because of historically low interest rates that will enable the state to issue the bonds without the need for additional taxes and without jeopardizing its triple-A credit rating. Since the last statewide bond referendum in 2000, when North Carolina voters overwhelming approved $3.1 billion in higher education bonds, the population of the state has grown by 2 million people. The bond referendum is among the issues on the ballot when voters go to the polls Tuesday, March 15. It is a bipartisan initiative proposed initially by McCrory and later endorsed by the General Assembly.