North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory visited Western Carolina University on Friday, May 22, seeking support for his proposed $3 billion bond package that would fund state infrastructure improvements and transportation projects, a plan that would include $114.9 million for a new WCU science building.
McCrory told a standing-room-only crowd assembled in a laboratory in WCU’s existing Natural Science Building, which was originally built in the 1970s and is no longer considered suitable for science education, that the time for the bond issue is now because of low interest rates and growing infrastructure needs.
“It’s not if you need a new building, it’s when are you going to do it. The longer you wait, the more expensive it’s going to get, and the less productivity you’re going to have with your students,” he said, pointing out broken ceiling tiles and antiquated lab equipment. “These in the real estate world would be considered D-minus buildings, which would be torn down.”
In his plan, titled “Connect NC,” McCrory has proposed nearly $3 billion in bond issues for state projects, with about half of that amount to fund highway improvements and the other half to pay for other infrastructure, renovation and construction projects across the state, including $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 said he understands the need for educational improvements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (often called the STEM programs) because of the competition he sees from other states in recruiting business and industry.
“There is a skills gap in our country and in North Carolina, and as I’m recruiting industry to come to North Carolina, including to Western North Carolina, the first question I’m asked is ‘Do you have the talent necessary to fill the jobs at all levels.’ If you can’t answer yes to that question, they will go to another state or to another country,” he said.
“If we don’t get the scientists, if we don’t get the engineers, if we don’t get the mechanics and if we don’t get the electricians, then we’re not going to keep the industry that we have in North Carolina, let alone attract industry to North Carolina,” he said.
McCrory also reminded the crowd that North Carolina recently passed Michigan to become the ninth most-populated state in the nation. “And we’re going to keep growing,” he said. “We have a choice – do we prepare for that growth, or do we react to that growth? And that’s where I think government has a role in preparing its infrastructure.”
WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher thanked McCrory for his endorsement of a new science building at WCU, calling the visit “an important and significant day for our institution.”
“We cannot adequately express our appreciation for affirming us as an institution through your understanding of the integral role this institution plays in the economy of Western North Carolina and your belief in our further potential to deepen and strengthen our impact on this part of the state in helping this wonderful part of our state to achieve the kind of economic vitality of some of our urban sisters in this state,” Belcher said.
Belcher expressed appreciation to members of the legislature, including Rep. Chuck McGrady and Sen. Tom Apodaca, both of Hendersonville, for their support of the project, reading a letter from Apodaca, a WCU alumnus and former member of the WCU Board of Trustees.
“As an advocate of STEM education, I am excited to see this idea gaining attention and support,” Apodaca wrote. “I am encouraged by the support for this important project, and hope that any future bond package will address such needs of Western Carolina and its students. While the bond discussion will continue, and may ultimately be decided by voters, I am glad to see the interests of Western Carolina recognized as integral to our state’s long-term success.”
For the bond package to become reality, the proposal must be endorsed by the General Assembly to be placed on the ballot for November’s elections, and then approved by voters statewide.
Also participating in a discussion of the proposed bond issue were State Budget Director Lee Roberts; Nick Tennyson, deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary; Teresa Williams, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees; other university and community leaders; and WCU student Mariah James, a junior biology major characterized by Belcher as “the most person here” because she represented the students who study in the building.
After the discussion, McCrory and the group took a brief tour of the Natural Sciences Building. That was followed by a visit to the WCU steam plant, which was built in the 1920s and is in need of significant renovations, as an example of the extensive amount of repair and renovation funding needs throughout the entire UNC system.