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WCU, Forest Hills continue hammering out Town Center concept

Looming budget cuts to the state’s higher education system won’t interfere with Western Carolina University’s goal of creating a town to call its own, the man tasked with drawing up a project agreement said this week.

Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, also said if the project for a Town Center moves forward it would be on the financial back of a yet-unidentified private developer. Not, he said, through or at the expense of the university or state.

North Carolina is facing a $3.7 billion shortfall. Budget cuts are expected to extend to the University of North Carolina system, which includes WCU. In anticipation, the cost of attending the university would increase 4.45 percent for the 2011-12 academic year under a plan approved this month by the WCU Board of Trustees.

McClure debunked any idea that the Town Center concept would lose steam because of the departure of Chancellor John Bardo. The chancellor, who developed and spearheaded the possibility of developing 35 acres on WCU’s main campus, announced he would retire next summer.

Key to the Town Center moving forward is whether the Village of Forest Hills agrees to annex the land. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with a college town.

Nearby Forest Hills consists of fewer than 400 residents. Most are current or retired faculty and staff of the university. The town incorporated in 1997, mainly to prevent an influx of students from taking over the community.

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What’s in a name?

A draft agreement between WCU and Forest Hills obtained last week by The Smoky Mountain News calls for a referendum on mixed drinks, beer and wine if the tiny incorporated community moves forward with the plan.

The letter of intent also suggests Forest Hills would lose its name for that of the “Town of Cullowhee.” And that it would adopt a “mutually acceptable mixed-use zoning district ordinance based on an initial draft provided by WCU.”

WCU Chancellor John W. Bard sent the letter, dated Dec. 6, to Jim Wallace, mayor of Forest Hills.

Wallace said this week he’s hoping fellow Forest Hills leaders give the project a green light.

“I myself think it would be extremely good for the community and the Village of Forest Hills,” he said. “But we don’t know the details yet. And I don’t vote.”

Wallace said council members would review the draft “paragraph by paragraph” at its upcoming January meeting.

Bardo, in the draft, noted: “The purpose of this letter of intent is to provide the framework for negotiations between WCU and Forest Hills regarding a proposed transaction, and outline material terms and the basis upon which a definitive development agreement may be negotiated and prepared for execution by Forest Hills and WCU.”

The development agreement would be for 20 years unless the two parties mutually agreed to terminate the bargain.

“The Town Center may involve construction of up to 2 million square feet of building space. … Building space currently contemplated includes, without limitation, general retail business, residential space, food services business and entertainment business. The parties agree that large, ‘big box’ retail establishments will not be permitted in the Town Center,” the letter states.



Not everyone thrilled with WCU idea

Robin Lang, Cullowhee businessperson and community advocate:

“I was shocked to read WCU presented Forest Hills its proposal for a ‘Town Center.’ The nerve to call it a ‘Town Center.’ … A ‘Town Center’ without free enterprise? Chancellor John Bardo stated at the first meeting with Forest Hills that the square-footage prices would be too high for a local business to afford. A ‘Town Center’ where within only alcohol sales are allowed? How will our small business community fairly compete with that? Let’s get a countywide alcohol referendum on the next ballot and take a vote. Level the playing field or we will watch more of our local family businesses go under and fold at the mercy of corporate entities and the university once again.

“What about our economic climate? To create service jobs? For whom? The people the university and Forest Hills put out of business? Maybe for the faculty and staff they lay off next year due to the extreme budget cuts. Our community doesn’t need more underemployment. … Is the fate of Cullowhee and Jackson County allowed to lie only in the hands of WCU, the 400 residents of Forest Hills and its board members? The rest of the community, the vested taxpaying, property-owning community needs representation and has a right to a voice.

“What concerns me most is when I think about connecting all the dots of recent events. Our new county commissioners ran on the Tea Party ticket, which professes that people take back their government. Yet the new commissioners have set Mondays at 2 p.m. for their public meetings, which will exclude most of the pesky working public. … I’m concerned that neither WCU nor Forest Hills made this document public. This is public information. ... What else are they thinking and not telling us?”

Read the draft agreement at

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