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Wednesday, 30 May 2012 12:43

From bars to research, Cullowhee poised for growth on all fronts

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A grand and engaging vision for Western Carolina University’s Millennial campus as a place where academics, research, private industry and college life intersect has stalled almost since its inception seven years ago, but there might finally be signs of movement.

The $46 million Health and Human Sciences building slated to open in the fall has sparked interest from private developers who are exploring the idea of building a medical complex that would house doctor’s offices or health clinics. Indeed, that was the hoped-for affect of new health care teaching facility — to become 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.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher said that as the economy improves he believes development plans for the campus will move forward.

“By virtue of this facility I think that we are setting ourselves up as a hub for rural public health,” the chancellor said. “And what I want is medical services for our region.”

However, the economic climate to date has suppressed such growth, he said, because in turn “it’s a matter of them being able to court people willing to lease the space.”

Seven years ago, using $2.87 million in state bond money, WCU bought 344 acres of land across N.C. 107 from the main campus. The idea was to build the Millennial Campus, a showcase of how academics, research, private business and housing could be combined to enhance education. But so far, the campus is home to just the $46 million, 160,000-square-foot Health and Human Sciences building, set to open for classes this fall.

It will bring under one roof 11 programs from the College of Health and Human Sciences ranging from physical therapy to nursing, serving about 1,200 students, including 300 graduate students.

A new College of Education and Allied Professions building was next on the list but has been sidelined because of funding shortfalls in the state budget.

“We’ll need to re-examine and affirm that building or not — it has been four or five years since the decision was made,” Belcher said.

The chancellor said that he is certain that as the economy rebounds there inevitably will be growth taking place in the Cullowhee area. He said the university, for its part, would be forced to deal internally with such planning issues as transportation, sidewalks and the development of infrastructure that includes water, sewer and roads.

“And will there be residential halls there? Dining halls? It takes a lot of advance planning,” Belcher said of the future Millennial Campus.

Cullowhee poised for growth

Millennial Campus isn’t the only area likely to see growth in Cullowhee. The commercial districts around campus could attract new businesses to located following the recent passage of countywide alcohol sales.

Even without those two elements Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County. The community grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census.

The prospect of unbridled growth has some in the Cullowhee community calling for the county to start some sort of land-use planning process. Meetings are being held in Cullowhee under the auspices of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee.

“My hope is that the people of the Cullowhee community will come together and develop a plan for the future of Cullowhee that takes advantage of the natural resources and attributes of the area,” said Mary Jean Herzog, the chair of CuRvE.

Herzog sent a letter to county commissioners asking they consider instituting planning efforts and that they make the revitalization of old Cullowhee a priority.

“As Cullowhee continues to grow, CuRvE is concerned about the lack of planning that has a negative impact on ‘Old Cullowhee,’” Herzog wrote in the letter. “If you walk along Old Cullowhee Road, you can see how this uncontrolled development looks. There are attractive, new houses on the river and on the opposite side of Old Cullowhee Road that add to the beauty of the area … But there are significant sections of disrepair and deterioration that drag down these efforts to beautify and revitalize.”

CuRvE has not heard back from county leaders, but Jackson County Planner Gerald Green is now working with members of that group and other Cullowhee residents at commissioners’ request. The group’s members are studying community-based zoning as a possibility for the area, though it would require gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The signatures are a county requirement before commissioners will consider instituting community-based zoning.

Per state law, the designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land.

Robin Lang, a business owner in Cullowhee and member of CuRvE, said she believes “now is the time to act” when it comes to planning Cullowhee’s future..

“I think the alcohol referendum is waking a lot of people up,” Lang said. “You have to manage growth or it’s going to be a mess. We’ve got to be smart and savvy about it.”

Lang is an advocate for a planning board or council, similar in scope to one now operating in Cashiers, to oversee Cullowhee.

Cashiers in 2003 was divided into two districts, a “village central” and a general commercial zone. In addition, Jackson County commissioners created a five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council to review amendments to the zoning plan and to make recommendations to the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.

Like the CuRvE members, Belcher, too, believes growth in the Cullowhee community will present challenges in coming days.

“I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “Our collective challenge is how we as a region and as a community deal with economic development.”

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