If numbers truly tell the tale, then there are a lot of people living in Cullowhee who care a great deal about the future of that community. More than 100 of them turned out last week for a meeting at Cullowhee Valley School on how to handle the challenges and opportunities that speedy growth promises to bring.
Cullowhee, with Western Carolina University serving as its heartbeat, grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district to speak of.
Speakers at the meeting emphasized that they do not expect Cullowhee’s growth rate to slow anytime soon, and that planning will be key to handling what’s sure to come.
Wanda Kidd, a retired Baptist campus minister at WCU, noted that Cullowhee’s struggle to identify itself was further weakened when the high school there closed in 1988.
“When schools are closing, you have to redefine your identity,” Kidd said, adding that communities can often find that spirit by rallying around other institutions such as volunteer fire departments.
“We need to find how to support that, and maybe find some other ways to hook into that identity,” Kidd said.
She also suggested, to the obvious approval of many in the large crowd, that signs be placed around Cullowhee to help cement the community’s presence.
“I love living in Cullowhee, and I want everybody else to get that sense of community,” Kidd said.
County Planner Gerald Green said that like Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, he has no doubts that more growth in the Cullowhee township is inevitable.
“Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t call my office wanting to talk about new student housing,” Green said.
Clark Corwin, a Forest Hills town council member, said that he believes WCU needs to tie itself not just to younger students, but with older Cullowhee residents “who are vested” in the community: retired faculty and staff, students who stay after graduating, plus people who simply like Cullowhee and choose to make their homes there.
“There is an opportunity to provide services,” said Corwin, noting there could be cultural events targeting this hidden population plus learning opportunities through the university.
Business owner Robin Lang raised the possibility of a planning board being formed to help guide the Cullowhee community. That received a thumbs down from at least one audience member, Jim Calderbank, who lives in Waynesville but has ties into the Cullowhee community. He called for “one overreaching group or individual” with “competency and experience in community development and redevelopment” rather than a board of people.
Belcher described future growth at WCU as “a foregone conclusion.” But the chancellor noted WCU, at least for now, lacks critical infrastructure such as housing and parking needed to support growth, meaning additional population increases probably will be incremental and not immediate.
This could provide leaders and community members with the necessary time lapse for critically needed planning.
Belcher said that WCU would likely tackle the parking issue by building a parking garage, noting congregating cars in one central location is friendlier to the environment than building several individual parking lots. Off-campus housing construction is sure to take place, too, the chancellor said.
WCU’s chancellor said that Cullowhee and WCU’s futures are inextricably linked.
“And I want Cullowhee to be that community that will help me attract the best and brightest students,” Belcher said, emphasizing that he is “committed … to bringing the university to the table,” and adding his personal willingness to “sit down and talk about these issues.”
How important is WCU to Jackson County?
• Recent WCU new construction: nearly $190 million
• Recent WCU building renovations: $50.3 million
• WCU future construction/renovations: $233 million
• Recent off-campus residential apartments: $23.6 million