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Wednesday, 24 August 2016 12:05

WCU opens $29 million building

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With fall classes newly underway, 420 Western Carolina University students are settling into their rooms in brand new Noble Hall, a $29.3 million building that the university just completed. 

“Just completed” is far from being an exaggeration. Last Thursday (Aug. 18), WCU’s director of residential facilities Tim Chapman was winding up a long day of overseeing last-minute inspections and finishing touches. Furniture — eight tractor-trailer loads of it — had already been delivered and set up, walls had been painted and occupancy approved, but there were still the odds and ends to see to, like getting one last elevator in the 120,000-square-foot building inspected and approved. And all that knowing that the next wave of students would arrive bright and early the next morning, showing up with their parents as early as 5 a.m.

 

A mixed-use building

With classes starting Aug. 22, getting the place ready for students was the top priority when it came to Noble Hall. But work on the bottom floor is ongoing, likely to continue throughout the fall semester. Noble Hall is a mixed-use facility, designed to house students and businesses alike. 

“There was such a feeling of attachment to the businesses that were here originally,” said the university’s communications director Bill Studenc. “We’re pleased with having many of them coming back.”

The Noble Hall site used to be home to a commercial strip housing several businesses, including Subway, the Mad Batter Bakery and Café, and Rolling Stone Burrito. But a November 2013 fire heavily damaged the structures, forcing the three businesses listed to vacate. That same year, the school’s Board of Trustees endorsed a master plan that included the goal of developing a mixed-use facility to keep students living in the heart of campus while also providing the amenities needed to support campus life. Circumstances came together to prompt the planning of Noble Hall. 

Bob Hooper, owner of Bob’s Mini-Mart, is likely to be the first business to open in Nobles Hall’s bottom floor, expecting to be running in about three weeks. He’s had the business for more than 35 years, and while the mini-mart was not consumed by the fire, he’s been taking it easy for the past year as construction has proceeded. WCU ended leases with existing businesses in the construction area as of March 1, 2015, so the project could begin. 

Hooper won’t be the only one setting up shop in Noble Hall — far from it. The first Chili’s Bar and Grill to open west of Asheville is expected to be complete by the start of spring semester, with the remaining businesses opening in the fall. Sylva-based Blackrock Outdoors will be opening a second location in the building. Subway is coming back, and local businesses City Lights Bookstore, Mad Batter, and Rolling Stone are collaborating on an enterprise called MadStone Café and Catching Light Books that will combine elements of all three stores. 

“One of the things we were aiming for was a good mix,” Studenc said. 

A trio of student orientation counselors hanging out in one of the building’s heavily windowed corner lounges gave their approval to the project, even though they won’t be living there themselves. 

“I would actually enjoy living in this dorm,” said junior Matt Furlough. 

“This is going to be a highlight of campus,” agreed sophomore Cameron Cagle. 

“I think it’s going to bring new life to the campus and keep more students on campus,” said junior Davis Wilson.

The rooms speak to a different standard of student living than existed in the distant decades when some of WCU’s residence halls were constructed. There are private rooms and double rooms, most with a bathroom that’s used only by those living in the room or suite. The building is air-conditioned, and includes kitchens with space for students to cook and eat together. The study lounges are spacious, with Chapman’s favorite a large, corner room whose outside-facing walls are largely made of windows. 

Chapman certainly didn’t have any trouble getting takers for the rooms, with all 420 pre-sold before February was over. 

“We’re glad this thing opened on time,” Studenc commented.

Chapman had been afraid that wouldn’t be the case. The construction crew ran into a lot of rock at the start of the project, setting the timeline back. 

“At the beginning we were a month behind schedule,” Chapman said, “and we’re opening on time.” 

The university has overtime hours and increased manpower on the part of the contractors to thank for that, he said. 

 

Looking to the future

Numbers won’t be official until the 10th day of classes is in the books, but right now it looks like WCU is on track for a record-breaking enrollment — both for incoming freshmen and the student body as a whole. 

The biggest freshman class on record, the class of 1972, totaled 1,859 students, and the record for total enrollment, set in 2014, is 10,382 students. 

It’s hard to tell whether enrollment numbers will follow a continued trend upward or if it’s all part of the ebb and flow. As Chapman said, “the crystal ball is pretty foggy.”

Some statistics actually point to lower numbers of high school graduates in the future as the fewer-in-number recession-era babies come of age. But at the same time, WCU is navigating the start of the N.C. Promise program, which will cap tuition to the school at $500 per semester. The program’s goal is to make college more affordable to students whose families don’t have deep pockets, with the state making up the difference in revenue so the quality of education at WCU won’t suffer. 

A possible side effect of N.C. Promise, however, could be a marked increased in applications. WCU is one of only three of the UNC system’s 17 schools to be part of the program, so if more students apply due to the reduced expense, the school will have to decide whether it will increase selectivity or increase admissions. That outcome of that decision could ultimately affect what’s next for student housing. 

“I think that’s the big unanswered question is how many students do we need living on campus,” Chapman said. “How many beds do we need?”

In 2014, WCU adopted a policy that would require sophomores to live on campus — freshmen were already required to do so. Set to take effect this school year, the policy aimed to ensure that beds in Noble Hall, then just in the planning stages, would be filled and came from the perspective that a second year of campus living would ultimately benefit students’ personal development. 

However, that policy has been waived for 2016-17, and there’s no estimate of when — or if — it would actually take effect. 

“We’re full,” Chapman said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

The university will likely revisit the policy in January, after current students have decided whether to request a room again or live off-campus in the coming school year. 

The potential for new construction could also be a factor in the implementation of sophomore residency. With Noble Hall complete, Chapman said, university leadership is already turning its attention to future residence facility needs. 

“We’ve got some buildings that really need some love, or they need to be put out of their misery,” Studenc said of buildings like 800-bed Scott Hall, which has no air conditioning and old-style hall bathrooms instead of shared suite bathrooms. It’s hard to say whether the next big residence project will be constructing something new or overhauling one of those old buildings — or what kind of change in residence capacity would be the goal. 

“A master plan is a moving target,” Chapman said. “Everything we do is a moving target.”

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