Archived News

Athletics upgrades on the way at WCU: University to ask legislature for help with $130 million to-do list

Western Carolina University plans to replace or renovate the Jordan-Phillips Field House and components of Whitemire Stadium and the Ramsey Center, among other projects. File photo Western Carolina University plans to replace or renovate the Jordan-Phillips Field House and components of Whitemire Stadium and the Ramsey Center, among other projects. File photo

Western Carolina University is gearing up to take its first bite out of an estimated $130 million in needed upgrades to its athletic facilities, with the Board of Trustees recently hiring a construction manager to oversee the first chunk of projects, worth at least $30 million. 

The entire to-do list includes replacing or renovating Jordan-Phillips Field House and Camp Gym, components of Whitmire Stadium, portions of the Ramsey Center and components of softball and baseball facilities. But WCU doesn’t expect to get the funding to do it all at once.

“We’ll plan the entire list in small components or ‘pieces’ so we can ‘bite off’ pieces as funding comes available,” said Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.

The planned upgrades come as WCU celebrates a banner year for athletics. Its women’s soccer team won the Southern Conference championship, the football team finished with a 7-4 record and men’s basketball is amid a standout season.

Pending the UNC Board of Governor’s adoption of the new tuition and fee rates Trustees approved during their Dec. 15 meeting, WCU will be able to issue at least $30 million in debt in fall 2024. That debt would be funded by an increase in student fees. Back in 2021, when trustees were planning the two-step fee hike needed to do the project, they had discussed each student contributing $249 per year toward the price tag. But now the university is asking for authority to raise the fee up to $273 per student.

“We won’t know what’s needed until we issue the debt,” Byers said. “But it will only be what’s required to cover the ‘mortgage payment.’ The reason we raised the maximum to $273 is the dramatic increase in interest rates. Hopefully, rates will allow us to stay under the authorized amount.”

Related Items

However, students won’t see their fees increase by the full $273 over the two-year period from 2023-24 to 2024-25. Because some older debt is being retired during this same timeframe, the net increase per student would be $177, not $273.

The university is hoping to raise a matching $30 million in philanthropic donations, bringing the total for the first phase of upgrades to $60 million. A report Vice Chancellor for Advancement Jamie Raynor delivered to trustees Dec. 14 indicated that the university is well on its way to that goal. The division’s “Fill the Western Sky” fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $75 million total, has already surpassed the $47 million mark, of which more than $15 million is earmarked for athletics. That’s much different than the typical distribution of gifts, weighted mainly toward academic pursuits.

“All of the Division of Advancement staff know that in our menu, our very first thing we discuss is athletics facilities,” Raynor told trustees. “And you’ll see some of that work with about a third of the work of the development staff going to athletics facilities. This is very different than any prior year.”

WCU is also hoping to get help from the N.C. General Assembly. In the legislative agenda trustees approved Dec. 15, athletics facilities were the third priority listed, after employee salaries and increased funding for the Moore Building renovation to address inflation. In that document, these athletics facilities are deemed to be in “end-of-life” condition.

“Student fees and alumni investments are not sufficient to address the $130 million in critical facilities improvement needs and identified accessibility improvements for players, students and attendees,” the document says. “Current student fees are expected to support $30 million in health and safety updates as well as structural facility improvements, but that is a small portion of the overall need.”

State budget policy does not allow universities to use general operating appropriations for athletics facilities, so WCU can’t use any money the state has already given it to support this project. However, legislators could choose to make an appropriation specific to that purpose. During its Dec. 15 meeting, trustees approved the hire of Vannoy and Sons Construction as construction manager for the project. McMillan Pazden Smith has already been chosen as the designer.

“It’s our practice to get on board as soon as possible after we engage the designer on a project, to get the construction manager on board, because that gives you two entities to reconcile estimates along the way as you’re designing,” Byers told trustees. “It’s better for us when we have both of them working together rather than designing the project and then bringing the construction manager on board.”

The construction manager was chosen based on qualifications rather than through a hard bid process.

“This isn’t really one project. It’s a bunch of pieces and phasing, and when funding comes available having somebody who can be nimble is important with that respect,” Byers said. “Along the way they’ll get their subs to provide information, and before we go out and issue debt for the project, we’ll actually have a guaranteed maximum price.”

The scope of the initial project will depend on how much fundraising has been done by the time debt is issued, with work to be phased around WCU’s athletic calendars. The first portion of the project will likely take 24-30 months to complete, Byers said.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.