After the polls closed on North Carolina’s primary election day last March 15, the state’s residents tuned in to media reports to find out who the winners were, in terms of political party nominees. But the students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of Western Carolina University had another reason to sit on the edge of their seats as the vote results were tallied – election day also included a referendum on a $2 billion state bond issue containing $110 million for replacement of WCU’s four-decades-old Natural Sciences Building. As the votes were counted, the numbers quickly took a positive turn for WCU, with just shy of two-thirds of voters giving the thumbs-up to the bond issue. The final result: future Catamounts win, by a landslide.
Jay Strum ’87 and his wife, Susan Strum ’87, were among the WCU alumni keeping close tabs on the referendum. “We were watching TV and following along on the internet as well. It was very quickly apparent that (the bond) had enough votes to pass,” Jay Strum said. “We were elated and proud to be North Carolinians. The bond approval showed that we care about investing in infrastructure and providing a quality education to all students, regardless of background or socioeconomic status. And we were ecstatic that WCU is getting a badly needed new science building.”
Jay Strum earned bachelor’s degrees in both chemistry and biology at WCU. He says he was strongly influenced as a student by Roger Lumb, now a retired professor emeritus of biology, and he spent a lot of time in the current Natural Sciences Building, which then was a relatively new facility. “I spent many days and nights in his lab learning to perform biochemical research,” Strum said. “I made a lot of mistakes, but Roger would always say, ‘Well, you’ll never do that again’.” Strum left WCU and went on to earn his doctorate in biochemistry at Wake Forest School of Medicine. He is now chief scientific officer and a member of the management team at G1 Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company in Research Triangle Park that focuses on the discovery and development of new treatments for cancer. Prior to joining G1 Therapeutics as its first employee, Strum led drug discovery programs in cancer and metabolic diseases at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. The current rapid rate of scientific discovery requires universities to quickly incorporate new knowledge into their training of future scientists, Strum said. “The need to have a state-of-the-art facility is critical. This new building, coupled with the high quality of WCU’s faculty and students, will better prepare the students for advanced degree programs and will provide them an advantage when competing in the job market,” he said.
Floyd “Ski” Chilton ’80 says he “practically lived” in the Natural Sciences Building and Hunter Library during his junior and senior years at WCU. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology, Chilton also earned his doctorate in biochemistry at Wake Forest School of Medicine. He is now a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Chilton said he was among those keeping a close watch on the referendum vote tally. “It was hard for me to imagine that Western Carolina could have reached its potential and purpose as an institution without this new science facility,” he said. “So many of the critical things we do as a society funnel through the basic sciences, and those sciences and the informatics associated with them now is so dramatically different from 40 years ago. With so many degree programs at WCU depending on students learning cutting-edge basic science, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for WCU to have maintained its leadership position in all those areas in Western North Carolina without the new science building. I’m so thankful that the people of North Carolina recognized that.”
Another WCU alumnus was watching the referendum vote with high anticipation from his home several miles from campus. Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, earned degrees in history at WCU but, like so many thousands of other alumni of the university, took general education courses in the Natural Sciences Building. For Starnes, it was chemistry in Room 208 and astronomy in the auditorium. “I see this new structure as the campus’ next evolution,” he said during a moment of reflection from the dean’s office in the Stillwell Building, adjacent to the Natural Sciences Building. “It’s going to be historic for us. It’s going to provide us with capabilities that we don’t currently have and provide our students with cutting-edge experiences. It will allow us to better serve the region and state in ways that now we simply can’t do.”
Creating a new natural sciences facility is not as simple as throwing together some bricks, concrete and steel to create classrooms and labs, Starnes said. Flexibility and collaboration potential are the keys to building spaces for science education that is relevant for the third decade of the 21st century, and succeeding decades. “The days of a single space – a lab or classroom – performing a single function are gone, and the availability of collaboration spaces (in the new building) will change the nature of the research our faculty and students perform, but it also will change the nature of our teaching,” he said. “We may revise our curriculum based on the design because it will provide us with capabilities that we don’t have in our current facility. What we want to do is train students for the lab experiences they’ll have in graduate school or in their place of work.”
University officials were optimistic that the bond issue would be approved by voters and funding would be secured for the replacement building, Starnes said. A request for proposals was ready to send out to prospective architectural design firms the day after the referendum. WCU’s Board of Trustees will have the final say in choosing a designer for the new facility after it receives input from faculty and Facilities Management leaders. Later, forums will be held on campus to give students, faculty and staff a chance to provide their opinions on the design, and several committees of faculty members who are focusing on topics such as research, collaboration, pedagogy and engagement also will voice their opinions. “I anticipate a lot of faculty involvement, and not just by the science faculty,” Starnes said. The design work is expected to take a year or more to complete.
The university will be assisted throughout the design and construction process by Jeanne Narum, a nationally recognized expert in science facilities and teaching who is founding director of Project Kaleidoscope, a National Science Foundation effort to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning environments. Narum visited campus in late March to meet with the campus community and discuss an initial vision for the new structure. Construction of the new natural sciences facility will begin in 2018 on or near the site of the current building. WCU leaders hope to have the new facility completed by 2020, Starnes said.
A Noble endeavor, and other projects
Construction continued through the summer on Noble Hall, the new $29.3 million four-story mixed-use facility that is filling the space previously occupied by a commercial strip on Centennial Drive in the heart of WCU’s campus. Consisting of three segments, the building is named in honor of the Noble Nine, the group of nine trustees from the late 1800s who were instrumental in the development of the school that evolved into WCU. The 120,000-square-foot structure will feature a mix of residential units and commercial and dining establishments on the ground floor, with residential spaces on the upper floors. University officials expected the residential portions of the building, with about 420 student beds, to be ready for occupancy by the start of fall semester, with the dining and retail establishments scheduled to open later in the semester.
By July, four of the five commercial tenants had been announced: the first Chili’s Grill and Bar in North Carolina west of Asheville, which will be operated by Aramark, WCU’s food service partner; a new Bob’s Mini-Mart convenience store; an upgraded Subway sandwich shop; and a Cullowhee outpost for the Sylva-based outdoor recreation retailer Blackrock Outdoor Co. Negotiations were still in progress for the fifth and final business, a combined bookstore and coffee shop. The opening of the convenience store and sandwich restaurant will mark the return to campus of two of the businesses that previously operated in the commercial strip, portions of which were damaged by fire in 2013.
Around the corner on Central Drive, work continued over the summer on the $27.4 million Brown Building project, which includes the renovation of 30,000 square feet of existing space and the addition of another 25,000 square feet of space to the 54-year-old structure. Work commenced in the spring, and by early summer the erection of steel beams was underway and the facility was beginning to take the shape of the project renderings, said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. Brown Building served for many years as a campus food option located in the historic hill area, but food services moved out when WCU opened Courtyard Dining Hall in 2010. After the project is completed in the summer of 2017, Brown once again will be a dining option for students while also providing space for Residential Living administration offices.
On WCU’s West Campus, plans are still in the works for a medical office building that will be the first privately developed structure built as part of the Millennial Initiative. In December 2015, Summit Healthcare Group of Winston-Salem came aboard as WCU’s partner in the project, and the two parties have been working together to find the best site for the facility, which will be near WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building, Byers said. “The primary concern has been to find a suitable site that will not diminish the availability of parking,” he said. By summer, a concept had been approved for the development of design plans, and construction may begin in spring 2017. The building is expected to include at least 30,000 square feet of space for health care professionals and health-related businesses.
Just across N.C. Highway 107 from the main campus, demolition work was completed in early summer on a 35-unit faculty-staff apartment complex that had provided short-term housing for WCU employees since the 1960s. Located off Long Branch Road, the complex is being replaced by a 480-space parking lot slated to be ready for use by fall semester. The new lot will be targeted toward freshmen students living in Scott and Walker residence halls, which are walking distance from the lot via the pedestrian bridge over the highway.
Also in early summer, installation was finished for the Electron Garden on the Green, which is believed to be the first combination solar power generating facility and hammock “hanging lounge” on any college campus in the nation. Located in green space across Memorial Drive from Walker Residence Hall and near Cullowhee Creek, the facility includes 40 solar panels capable of generating 10-kilowatts of power. The “EGG,” a project of WCU’s Sustainability Energy Initiative, is the first physical structure funded through a student sustainability fee of $5 per semester. It includes hanging space for about 10 hammocks, internet and USB ports, and electrical outlets.
One other project that is not a WCU initiative but that will have an effect on the university community is the N.C. Department of Transportation’s replacement of the bridge that spans the Tuckaseigee River on Old Cullowhee Road on the back side of campus. Construction began in March and is scheduled to continue through the fall of 2018. The new bridge is being built in the same location as the old bridge, and traffic delays and congestion are expected when just one lane is open for traffic starting in August. Red lights installed on each side of the river will regulate the traffic flow.