A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University will include ideas and voices from the local community, new Chancellor David Belcher promised Jackson County’s town and county leaders.
In a wide-ranging address at a breakfast gathering held late last week at the county’s senior center, Belcher spoke on themes of cooperation, partnership and engagement. He said Jackson County’s residents could rely on him and his wife, Susan, to be visible and active members of the community.
“You are going to see us out in the community because we want to be part of the community,” said Belcher, who started in his new role July 1. “We know that WCU does not exist in a vacuum. We are a part of Jackson County, and Jackson County is a part of us. Whatever we do, we need to do together. We don’t want you to consider us that monster down the street. We want you to consider us part of you.”
Belcher took over from Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer after 16 years in the top university post. Belcher came to Cullowhee after serving as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Strategic planning will start this fall and take up to a year to complete. The new chancellor is familiar with the process: he completed two such plans for the University of Arkansas, one just a few days before he made the move to Western North Carolina.
“My planning processes never stop at the edge of campus,” Belcher said. “We must go out into the community to get input from our external partners. We want our community partners talking with our people on campus about their vision for the university. …We take this very seriously, because you have as much at stake in the university as we do.”
The relationship between WCU and Jackson County at large could be described as strained at best.
Bardo, though he took steps during his long tenure to strengthen ties with the surrounding community, at times came in for criticism on that point, too: for not participating in day-to-day local affairs, for being absent on important political issues taking place in the university’s home county of Jackson and, most often heard, for reportedly spending much of his time at a second home in Raleigh.
Despite his critics, Bardo took some concrete measures. With Sylva, for example, by bringing WCU’s homecoming parade back to downtown in 1996 — it had pulled out in the mid-1950s.
Danny Allen, a Sylva commissioner, said the relationship between the town and WCU is very important, and that the two entities “could both benefit the other.” Allen said he believes the student population at WCU is a great, untapped economic resource for Jackson County, and that he’d specifically like to see a small shopping outlet built that targets the 9,000 student-body population.
It will take work to improve the relationship between WCU and the greater community, which has “been bad at times,” said Suzanne Stone. Owner of the Cullowhee restaurant Rolling Stone Burrito and a member of the Village of Forest Hill’s town board,
Stone said she was optimistic about Belcher, saying he seems sincere in his efforts to improve relationships off campus. Stone said the new chancellor responded within 10 minutes to a welcoming email sent from a collection of business owners along what’s known as “The Catwalk” in Cullowhee, a gesture she said she and the others on the strip greatly appreciated.
Stone said the business owners are specifically interested in developing some kind of card for students to encourage them to patronize local businesses. The CatCard, the official WCU identification card, also serves as students’ meal-plan card through Aramark Dining Services, so that’s not a viable option for other establishments.
“We, too, want to talk about developing a relationship,” Stone said of Belcher, “and we would love to talk with him about the future of Western and our role going forward.”
What about that Town Center?
Bardo drew the ire of some local business owners and buy-local proponents by pushing for franchise-type establishments to come into Cullowhee.
Belcher, in a separate interview with The Smoky Mountain News, said “my own preferences are for the unique,” and that he has “no predisposed feelings about building this campus community with a bunch of chains.”
Still, that’s what must be decided during a visioning process that he’s promising will include people from the community, Belcher said.
Bardo had developed a schematic and vision for a 35-acre commercial development on campus he called “Town Center.” Bardo pictured a built-from-scratch college town with buildings that would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and even a specialty-style grocery store.
The new chancellor did emphasize that targeting specific businesses and exact enterprises for recruitment falls outside what he considers the purview of his job as WCU’s top leader.
Also up for debate is the role of Forest Hill, a small town across the highway from campus, in the plans for Town Center.
Bardo had asked leaders of Forest Hills to expand its town limits to include the property where Town Center would be built. The major reason: to allow businesses populating the new Town Center to sell alcohol. Alcohol sales currently aren’t allowed in Cullowhee, since the county is dry and Cullowhee isn’t its own town.
But Forest Hills is, and Bardo saw it as, the ticket for Town Center’s development. He wanted Forest Hills to legalize alcohol sales, then annex the site for Town Center, paving the way for the type of restaurants and bars usually associated with a college campus.
The university might no longer have a need for Forest Hill’s help, however. County commissioners have announced plans to hold a countywide vote on whether to legalize alcohol sales across the county in 2012. (See story on page 10.)
Clark Corwin, a council member for Forest Hills, said the small, incorporated village located cheek to cheek with WCU “backed off” the project once Bardo announced his resignation. The town has scheduled a retreat at the end of September to conduct its own visioning process, Corwin said.
Belcher, for his part, said he’s not yet “in any position at this point to throw any of those ideas out, or embrace them.”
Want to meet the new chancellor?
Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher will meet with alumni and friends from Jackson County from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, in the new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.
It is the first stop on a “get acquainted tour” that will take WCU’s new chief executive officer to 15 stops during a four-month span, from Cherokee and Bryson City to Atlanta and Charlotte.