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Wednesday, 13 February 2013 00:00

WCU hastens Millennial build-out

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In an effort to speed development of its Millennial Campus, Western Carolina University plans to lease the 344-acre tract to a nonprofit endowment — streamlining regulations and eliminating some of red tape the institution must otherwise cut through as a state entity.

 

WCU leaders want the Millennial Campus to become a hub where private and public endeavors mix for the betterment of all — a place where academics, research, private industry and college life intersect. Purchased eight years ago, the tract is home to the newly-opened Health and Human Sciences building, which the university envisions as the epicenter of a health care consortium where students and professors study and teach alongside private health care providers, medical device companies and specialized clinics.

But to get there, the university fears it would be hampered by cumbersome state rules and regulations. Multiple levels of approval needed to green-light projects could delay growth. A public university will talk with a private developer about a possible partnership, and while the developer may be ready to start building right away, the college must get permission from various state organizations before moving forward.

“Once you have an agreement with (developers), they are ready to go,” said WCU Chancellor David Belcher. “Our great fear is they won’t wait around for us.”

In general, state agencies must oversee construction on state-owned land, from reviewing site plans to performing building inspections. Sometimes, private companies can’t or won’t wait around.

“Private business moves extraordinarily fast,” said Mary Ann Lochner, WCU’s general counsel. “We are not in the best position to respond.”

WCU Board of Trustees recently approved the idea of leasing the Millennial Campus to its endowment for 99 years for $1. The Endowment Fund would then oversee the development of the tract, including negotiating leases with private companies wanting to locate there.

A chain of state agencies and boards must sign off on the arrangement, which could take about a year. The WCU Board of Trustees rubberstamped the proposal in December, but the Board of Governors, the policy-making body for state higher education institutions, will not vote on it until its April meeting.

Then, the proposal still has two more steps to go. In all, before the lease is finalized, WCU must get approval from the Board of Governors, the Council of State and Gov. Pat McCrory.

In essence, transfering the land to the Endowment means WCU only has to go through that process once, rather than asking the state to OK each project as it comes up — going through all the same approval hoops for each component of a Millennial Campus build out. While the initial approval process will take months, it will save time in the future.

“Without leasing it to the endowment, the processes that are in place are just extremely complicated,” Belcher said. “One of the advantages to leasing the property to the endowment is that the process by which we get approval for various kinds of things are streamlined.”

For example, county building inspectors, rather than the state construction officer, would handle building inspections. Also, developers would not be subject to “lowest-bidder” requirements as publicly built projects are.

 

What will it look like?

Letting the Millennial Campus to the Endowment Fund is just the beginning. The endowment will turn around and sublease chunks of the land to private developers, who will construct office buildings, research labs or medical practices. WCU will not pay for construction costs.

“Any private developer who we partner with will be the one building and spending money,” Lochner said.

So far, the vision for public-private partnerships on the Millennial Campus has revolved around the Health and Human Sciences building. WCU leaders are hoping a mixture of private ventures and academic pursuits will attract health care professionals or researchers who might not otherwise settle in Western North Carolina. In turn, community members could benefit from their expertise.

“We are basically clustering a group of professionals who can in fact help the people around us,” Belcher said. “We think in the long run it is going to pay huge dividends for Western North Carolina.”

At some point, a build-out of Millennial Campus will go beyond the Health and Human Sciences mission, however. What exactly that may be isn’t known yet, Belcher said.

Belcher’s predecessor, Chancellor John Bardo, wanted to create a mixed-use complex of restaurants, cafes, retail shops and apartments on university property — a purpose-built, mixed-use, college town complex. But Belcher said that concept is not a priority for the university right now.

“There has been a lot of talk, primarily before I arrived, about mixed-use facilities here. Our immediate focus is not on developing those kinds of operations on the Millennial Campus,” Belcher said. “That’s not to say it wouldn’t in time.”

Belcher said a clearer vision for Millenial Campus will no doubt be addressed in a long-range campus master plan being created this year — with lots of opportunity for public input.

Developers have already approached WCU about possible projects; however, it’s unclear when serious negotiations about contracts and terms will take place.

“Whatever they build has to fit into our system,” Belcher said. “We are not just going out to get any old business to come on campus.”

After the 99-year lease with the Endowment Fund expires, ownership of the 344-acre millennial campus will revert back to the state.

“I really don’t see any downside,” Lochner said.

“Me either,” Belcher chimed in.

N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina in Charlotte have both gone similar routes to what WCU hopes to do to develop its Millennial Campus. WCU leaders visited both institutions to ask questions and learn from the two universities’ experience. Where did they succeed? What snags did they hit along the way?

The most valuable takeaway was to hire someone who would focus all of his or her time on the Millennial Campus project. Make it someone’s only priority, not one of many priorities.

“You cannot develop a Millennial Campus and all of the partnership relationships you need unless somebody is a designated champion for that campus,” Belcher said.

With that advice in mind, WCU plans to create an entirely new job — director of Millennial Initiatives, Regional Networks and Economic Development. The title is subject to change, as WCU is still tinkering with the job description.

“This person will really, as I have said, be the nexus between the campus and the community,” said Provost Angela Brenton at the December Board of Trustees meeting. “It would be optimum if they understand North Carolina and particularly Western North Carolina.”

Brenton invited about a dozen people to serve on a steering committee charged with finding an individual to fill the position. The salary is unknown, but Brenton said the university hopes to hire someone by July 1.

 

Tour WCU’s new Health and Human Sciences Building

A dedication ceremony for Western Carolina University’s new $46 million, state-of-the-art Health and Human Sciences Building will be held Thursday, Feb. 28.

The event will begin at 10 a.m. and will be followed by tours and demonstrations in simulation and research laboratories as well as in clinical spaces.

The four-story, 160,000-square-foot building opened this fall, the first building to grace WCU’s Millennial Campus, a 340-acre tract across the highway from the main college campus. Customized classrooms, seminar rooms and 21 specialized labs serve more than 1,200 undergraduate students and 300 graduate students in diverse high-demand, health-related programs.

The building brings under one roof students and faculty from disciplines including nursing, physical therapy, communication sciences and disorders, social work, athletic training, emergency medical care, environmental health, nutrition and dietetics, and recreational therapy.

Those who plan to attend the dedication ceremony are asked to RSVP by Monday, Feb. 18, by sending an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 828.227.7271.

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