WCU celebrates steam plant funding
Western Carolina University got some good news last week when the state legislature approved a budget bill that includes $16.5 million for the first of two phases to replace its aging steam plant, an ever more pressing need that WCU has been clamoring to address for years.
“I am beyond thrilled that our state legislators have included significant funding to address one of the most acute and critical infrastructure needs facing our campus — our antiquated steam plant, or, as I like to call it, ‘steam museum,’” said Chancellor David O. Belcher, who has been on medical leave since Jan. 1. “Obtaining the funding necessary to upgrade the steam plant was the top priority left unaccomplished when I began medical leave at the beginning of this year, and I am heartened to learn of its inclusion in the budget plan.”
The steam plant, which serves as the university’s source of heat and water, has been around in some capacity or another since the 1920s. While the typical life expectancy for the plant’s three older boilers is about 30 years, two of them are about 50 years old while the third is 45 years old. WCU officials have been concerned for years that the university could be just one harsh winter and mechanical failure away from a complete campus shutdown due to lack of steam and hot water. That almost happened in 2016, when the oldest boiler failed and resulted in the need to install costly temporary boilers, which have a projected lifespan of just 10 years. It’s only because of the efforts of the steam plant crew that the system has kept running as long as it has, said Acting Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar.
“While it’s not a very sexy item, the steam plant is a vital facility, providing heat and hot water to the majority of our campus,” said Morrison-Shetlar. “I am glad to see such strong support on the part of our elected state officials in ensuring the safety and comfort of our students and all members of our university community.”
The university has already started planning and design thanks to a $750,000 state appropriation in last year’s budget bill. When the 2018-19 budget meets final approval — as of press time it was awaiting signature from Gov. Roy Cooper — the university will begin work on phase one immediately, with an estimated completion date of May 2021.
“It’s just a huge win,” said Meredith Whitfield, director of external relations for WCU, during a May 31 meeting of the trustees’ Administration, Governance and Trusteeship Committee. “I want to thank everybody in this room for their support and assistance in getting us there. That has taken a team and a few years’ worth of teamwork.”
Completing the project will depend on receiving a second $16.5 million appropriation in the 2019-20 budget, but trustees were hopeful the second appropriation would transpire, especially following statements from House Appropriations Chairman Chuck McGrady characterizing the $16.5 million as the first of two installments.
“For anyone who’s a worrywart like I am, it’s great to see those kinds of things in writing,” Whitfield said.