A pair of WCU graybeards remember the transformative power of state bond campaigns of the past

By JIM ROWELL ’71…with a little help from CHUCK WOOTEN ’73

Nowadays, first-time visitors to Western Carolina University often comment on the beauty of the campus. Much to the pride of alumni, those visitors are absolutely right. But it hasn’t always been that way. A couple of Cullowhee graybeards, Chuck Wooten and I, were recently marveling at the WCU campus and the transformation that has occurred in the 40-plus years we have been around it.

As we talked, I could not resist sharing my recollection of a Sports Illustrated writer who came to campus in the early 1970s. We eagerly awaited the story in that national magazine. When it arrived, in the first few paragraphs the writer called Western “a cluster of red brick buildings.” That sent then-Chancellor H.F. “Cotton” Robinson into a full-tilt tizzy. I guess it is no accident that neither the Robinson Administration Building that bears his name nor the Ramsey Activity Center (conceived and designed during his tenure) are red brick.

As Chuck reminded me, it is not about bricks and mortar: “It is about students, faculty, staff and all the people that touch and benefit from a university. When all the parts fit together, a growing, thriving university is a magnificent thing.”

Chuck knows how the parts fit together. For more than 30 years, he was a key leader and participant in melding state appropriations, student fee monies, bond-funded infusions of capital, some federal dollars, alumni and donor support, and any other assets that could be gathered into a master plan that transformed and changed the direction of the institution.

Among those funding-source puzzle pieces, bond funds may be the catalyst that makes the real progress possible. Without infusions of capital improvement dollars from statewide bond campaigns, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to move the needle much in terms of campus transformation. Repair and maintenance quickly eat away the annual appropriations.

But when North Carolinians band together and provide bond funding, significant things happen. A bond referendum in 1993 provided for transforming renovations of Moore Hall, Camp Laboratory School, Reid Gymnasium and the completion of Belk Building.

Then in 2000, a $3.1 billion statewide bond package made it possible to bring McKee, Bird, and Breese back to life, prop up Stillwell Building for another 15 years, make renovations to Forsyth and upgrade the Killian Annex. Most importantly, it brought to life the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.

“That infusion of capital money opened the doors over the next seven or eight years to a reworking of the entire campus,” Chuck said. “It was the impetus for nonstate-funded projects like the west stands for Whitmire Stadium, a federally funded Center for Applied Technology, new residence halls, the Village, a Campus Recreation Center, a new dining facility, improvements to Hinds University Center, a women’s softball complex, a new track, soccer and tennis complex, improvements to the baseball stadium…”

I really think Chuck had hit his stride here, but I stopped him to interject the conversion of Western into a pedestrian-friendly campus and the new center plaza and fountain area, which I’m sure were on his list.

Retired from WCU, Chuck is now county manager for Jackson County, a role similar to one early in his career, when he was county manager for Iredell County. He knows the value of higher education on the county level.

“These improvements transformed the campus and contributed to the significant growth in student population and have forever changed the image of Western,” Wooten said. “It has helped this county grow and prosper in far-reaching ways.”

As we wrapped up our stroll down memory lane, Chuck and I agreed that this year’s March 15 bond referendum, Connect NC, again offers the opportunity to continue the progress…not just for Western, but for the state as a whole. Included in the $2 billion statewide bond package are projects that benefit every campus in the University of North Carolina system, the community colleges, state parks, water and sewer infrastructure, agriculture and public safety.

At WCU, the centerpiece is a replacement Natural Sciences Building that is desperately needed if the university is to continue to grow its student population and further enhance its academic excellence.

“This science building could be the beginning of another campus transformation,” Chuck said. “Western has already made a commitment to improving the campus through the construction of a new multipurpose building for commercial activities and student housing in the center of campus, and for the renovation of Brown to add much-needed dining and student activity facilities. If past history is any indication, this could be the beginning of additional capital improvements to the campus.”

But, first things first. The citizens of North Carolina will have their say in this matter. Fifteen years ago, North Carolina proposed the largest higher education bond package in the history of the United States. It was $3.1 billion and I, in my role in public information and marketing at Western, gave my best efforts toward making voters aware of what was at stake for the university and the state.

When the votes were in, the bond referendum passed in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. It was one of my proudest moments. As the projects built out over the years, I have often said that the folks in Graham and Swain counties made this possible. I would say that because those two counties are almost always at the top of the most economically distressed counties in the state. Yet, they voted for the higher education bonds because those good folk believe that education is the way forward.

Chuck and I do, too. March 15 is important.