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Forest Hills and CuRvE could fulfill Cullowhee’s potential

A meeting that could lead to a completely new personality for the Cullowhee area will be finished by the time this hits the presses, but I’m hoping that the meeting gives fresh momentum to efforts to transform the Western Carolina University community.

A meeting was held last night (Aug. 3) between the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) and the leaders and citizens of the town of Forest Hills. The Cullowhee group presented a formal proposal to Forest Hills to annex a portion of the community near the college. The move would effectively create a college town, putting portions of the Cullowhee community into the Forest Hills town limits. The move could pave the way for alcohol sales in bars and restaurants, and would offer strong land-use planning and access to state and federal grant money.

Such a move would be a stretch for both Forest Hills and the university community. Forest Hills has only 347 registered voters and was created as an enclave from the university. It is a haven where residents try to keep out some of the problems associated with college students, like loud parties and single-family residences crowded with 10 students and 10 cars parked in the street and yard.

Annexing around the university would give Forest Hills control of its destiny. It could create commercial and residential areas, working with the university as it plans for growth and change. There are lots of examples — Chapel Hill (UNC), Boone (ASU) and Greenville (ECU) — of small North Carolina towns working hand-in-hand with the local universities to create unique, livable and cool college towns. This is an opportunity to start down a similar path.

For many WCU professors and administrators, creating a lively business district around the college has been a long-time dream. Brian Railsback, an English professor and head of the Honors College, said he envisions old Cullowhee with new businesses and walkways and paths along the Tuckasegee River. Almost everyone who has ever spent time at WCU has had similar thoughts, imagining what old Cullowhee could be with some fresh investment and new businesses.

There is apparently a lot of support from the university for incorporating areas around WCU. The college town feel would certainly help attract students and professors, along with giving Jackson County and Forest Hills new sources of sales tax money.

In the end, this is really about fulfilling potential that has languished for decades. Forest Hills, WCU and the larger Cullowhee community are great places just as they are. But they could be much, much more. Here’s hoping this new dialogue opens some doors that have been shut for way too long.

Invigorating Cullowhee could hinge on Forest Hills

An unusual proposition has landed on the doorstep of Forest Hills, a tiny speck of a town at the edge of Western Carolina University.

In hopes of transforming Cullowhee into a more vibrant college community, a group dedicated to reinventing the lackluster area around campus wants Forest Hills to expand its town limits and annex a portion of the university and its surrounds.

It would be quite a leap for a town of Forest Hills size. With only 347 registered voters, a property tax rate of just one cent, and an area of a little over one square mile, the Village of Forest Hills seems more like a homeowners association than a bona fide town. It has no town hall and no paid employees.

Yet being part of an incorporated town is crucial in the quest for WCU’s campus to be more than an island in the middle of nowhere, according to those advocating the idea.

The restaurants, coffee shops and bars typically found around universities are markedly absent at Western — witnessed by a standing joke on campus that “Cullowhee is a state of mind.”

Incorporating would give Cullowhee the option of allowing alcohol sales and bring greater access to state and federal grants, supporters say.

Conjuring up a college town from thin air isn’t exactly what advocates have in mind, but they do want a more robust commercial district. In particular, the area along Old Cullowhee Road bordering the Tuckasegee River isn’t reaching its potential.

“I think it is difficult to sustain a business there. We have seen restaurants come and go, businesses change hands or just go defunct,” said Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College who is active in Cullowhee revitalization efforts. “Rather than a backwater to the university, it could become a hub.”

The appeal came to Forest Hills by way of the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, a group that goes by the acronym CuRvE.

The decision is ultimately up to the five members of the Forest Hills town board. So far, they appear willing to hear out the idea.

“We are part of the larger Cullowhee community, and we don’t want to divorce ourselves from that but instead look at our mutual interests,” said Clark Corwin, a Forest Hills town council member.

Details of the proposal are still in formation, including exactly what area CuRvE wants Forest Hills to annex. A public presentation by the group next week should shed light on those questions.

“I want them to share with us what their visions is and see if any of it fits with how the village is evolving,” Corwin said.

The town board is eager to keep Forest Hills residents abreast of the proposal, so much so that it sent a letter to every household in the town limits inviting them to the public meeting.

“The council would appreciate your presence and participation during this meeting,” the letter states.

The proposal to grow the town’s size comes with the suggestion for a name change: from Forest Hills to Cullowhee.

A name change would certainly create a shift in the town’s identity, Corwin said. But mention the two names to an outsider — Forest Hills and Cullowhee — and it’s easy to guess which one they’ve never heard of. Corwin said his post office address is in Cullowhee, after all, not Forest Hills.

Railsback said his group envisions a commercial district along Old Cullowhee Road with a “river walk” feel.


Road to redemption


One barrier to revitalization in Cullowhee is the lack of alcohol sales. Whether it’s a six-pack at a gas station or a glass of wine with dinner, alcohol sales aren’t allowed by Jackson County. Incorporated towns have the option of allowing alcohol sales, however.

If the annexation goes through, and if Forest Hills in turn passed a law to allow alcohol sales, it would help attract restaurants, Railsback said.

“That is the most important source of revenue for many restaurants,” Railsback said.

Railsback said legalizing alcohol sales is not the driving factor in the annexation plan, however.

“We didn’t all sit around say ‘Hey, let’s get incorporated so we can drink,’” Railsback said.

If it does pan out that way, however, beer could be sold at the Ramsey Center, where concerts and sporting events are held, and wine could be served during receptions at the Fine and Performing Arts Center — since both buildings would be taken in by the annexation.

The revitalization crew will try to convince the property owners in the area being annexed to support the move. But the most important pitch is to the people of Forest Hills. Many Forest Hills residents are affiliated with the university, from retired professors to currently faculty. For them, the motive to revitalize Cullowhee might be reason enough to support the idea.

But to others wondering what’s in it for them, Railsback points out that expanding Forest Hill’s town limits is the only way to give them control over how growth around the university will look.

“Whatever happens in Cullowhee is going to be right at their front door,” Railsback said. “If you just passively sit there, you won’t have a say in what this will look like. I don’t think that will be in their best interest.

“Let’s face it. Even if you are in Forest Hills, you are living in a part of Cullowhee. I think people are interested in having a say and being a part of creating an identify for that,” Railsback said.


Forest Hills’ forte


Land-use planning just happens to be what Forest Hills does best. In fact, it’s their raison d’être.

The residents of Forest Hill incorporated as a town in the late ‘90s with one main purpose in mind: to keep student housing out. The town sits at the edge of the University and was at risk of becoming inundated by student apartments, condos and rental units.

Residents wanted to maintain their neighborhood feel. As a town, they could pass zoning laws to do just that. The town is currently refining its ordinance to limit the number of non-related people who can live under the same roof in an effort to prevent large groups of students from renting homes in certain neighborhoods.

The town hires off-duty deputies to patrol on weekend evenings during the school year to keep a check on loud partying.

Other than the security patrols, the town’s only other service is fixing potholes and street maintenance.

Corwin sees merit in Forest Hills being a master of its own destiny, rather than allowing Cullowhee to grow up around it.

“Either way, we are going to be affected. One way, we can have participation,” Corwin said.

Incorporating a brand-new town of Cullowhee will continue to be a fallback plan if Forest Hills doesn’t take the bait.

When Cullowhee Revitalization Effort launched three years ago, Railsback said the group quickly realized not being an incorporated town was hurting them. They weren’t eligible for some state and federal grants. From sidewalks to sewer lines, the area was missing out on funding it could get it only if it were incorporated, Railsback said.

“CuRvE didn’t begin with the idea of incorporation but we recognized pretty soon if you want to improve infrastructure or get grants or even stimulus money, no one is going to touch that if you aren’t incorporated,” Railsback said. “If you have a bunch of volunteers in an unincorporated area, you aren’t going to say ‘Here is $1 million, go to it.’”

Railsback said the proposal to Forest Hills came up as an alternative to jumping through the myriad hoops of incorporating a new town.

The idea to partner with Forest Hills has been percolating for more than a year, but it was publicly broached with the Forest Hills town board in December.

“We didn’t have a plan or anything then. We just said ‘Here’s what we are trying to do and would you be interested in some kind of expansion and being involved in creating Cullowhee,’” Railsback said. “Or should we reinvent the wheel and create our own Cullowhee, which could present problems for Forest Hills.”

Meanwhile, property owners in the area to be annexed also need convincing that something positive will come from having to paying town property taxes — albeit exceptionally low ones.

“If I was a property owner I would think on the one hand, I will have a city tax to pay, but on the other hand, if what comes with that is a whitewater park down the road and sidewalks and improvements and I can sell beer and wine, the property value would increase,” Railsback said.

Property owners would also be subject to whatever zoning laws Forest Hills leaders come up with.

If property owners sign on voluntarily, it will make the process far easier for Forest Hills. If they don’t like the idea, Forest Hills can annex them anyway, but the process is more cumbersome.

Railsback said the university administration supports the move. University leaders hope to create a new university “center,” a commercial district to fill the void of a college town. Being incorporated would help.

“The university likes it because if you are going to build a town center and you want a supermarket to come here, it is a much more attractive if it is an incorporated area,” Railsback said.


Want to learn more?


The Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor will present a formal proposal to the Village of Forest Hills to annex part of the university and surrounding area at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at the Ramsey Center hospitality room on the WCU campus. It is open to the public.


Cullowhee school grows beyond expectations

Landmark Learning based in Jackson County offers 80 courses a year providing wilderness medical training to 2,000 people across all sectors of the outdoor and medical industry.

Many of the courses are held at their campus in Cullowhee and around Western North Carolina, but they also regularly offer training at sites around the Southeast.

Justin Padgett and his wife, Maurie, launched the wilderness instruction company in the late 1990s as a side venture while they were both in grad school.

“When we stared Landmark, she thought it was a hobby,” Padgett said.

Now they have a sprawling outdoor campus, five full-time employees and a contract pool of 35 instructors.

“We even made an agreement when we started that we were only going to grow to where we had 10 people outside of us. We now have 40 people including us,” Padgett said. “We never wanted to pay insurance to anybody or get real like that, but we’re doing that.”

It takes one entire staff person just to be in charge of gear. They make sure all the equipment is clean and functioning before heading out into the field, and that the right gear gets to the right place at the right time for each course. The program coordinator does everything from scheduling venues for the courses to purchasing plane tickets for the instructors.

Landmark prides itself on the expertise of its instructors.

“Folks teaching wilderness medicine with us are active in the rescue community. They work for fire departments, they work for EMS, or they work in hospital settings. Some of our staff are surgical assistants,” Padgett said. “Our instructors are professionals and dedicated to doing this. This is their living.”

Padgett is a senior paramedic and ambulance driver for WestCare hospital in addition to his work with Landmark.

Landmark is affiliated with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. It is the largest NOLS affiliate nationally and the only affiliate in the Eastern U.S. Those who graduate from Landmark have certification bearing the name of NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute.

Landmark has a host of other affiliations and credentials as well.

• N.C. Office of Emergency Medical Services for EMT courses.

• American Canoe Association for swift water rescue and courses for whitewater instructors.

• American Heart Association for First Aid and CPR courses.

• Starfish Aquatics Institute for Lifeguard and Wilderness Lifeguard courses.

• American Mountain Guides Association for Climbing Instructor courses.

www.landmarklearning.org or 828.293.5384.

Cullowhee a good sports town for athletes and spectators

By Gibbs Knotts • Guest Columnist

Some local sportswriters have expressed bewilderment at a recent ranking by a nationally circulated magazine, The Sporting News, that placed Cullowhee at No. 199 among the United States’ top 399 sports cities.

These pundits seem perplexed that Cullowhee would be ranked 26 spots ahead of Boone, home of archrival Appalachian State University. When comparing Boone and Cullowhee, the sports reporters have focused on the higher attendance at Appalachian State football and men’s basketball games.

In their haste to criticize The Sporting News ranking, some journalists are missing a point that The Sporting News apparently did not miss — Cullowhee is home to a LOT of sporting events, many of them successful by regional and national standards.

Focusing solely on football and men’s basketball overlooks the achievements of at least seven of the other 13 Division I collegiate sports at Western Carolina. Last year, three WCU teams – women’s basketball, women’s soccer, and men’s track and field – won conference championships. Women’s track and field, baseball, men’s golf and women’s golf also have posted notably successful records.

WCU’s women’s basketball and soccer teams have been ranked in the nation’s top 20 academically. The women’s golf team regularly places individuals on the National Golf Coaches Association All-American Scholars list. In the spring 2009 semester, 87 student-athletes made the dean’s list and 18 earned perfect 4.0 grade-point averages. At Western Carolina, athletic victories usually go hand-in-hand with academic successes.

Part of what makes a sports town a sports town is tradition and history, and Western Carolina has its fair share. The first three-point shot in men’s college basketball was made in Cullowhee. Every year at NCAA basketball tournament time, the networks roll out the footage from 1996 when the Catamounts came within a whisker of being the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed. And Asheville’s own Henry Logan opened the door for student-athletes of his race when, in 1964, he joined the WCU basketball team and became the first African-American to play at a predominantly white institution in the South.

Adding to the game-day experience in Cullowhee is WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, whose crowd-pleasing halftime shows over the years are being recognized nationally by the John Phillip Sousa Foundation, which has awarded the band the 2009 Sudler Trophy — the Heisman Trophy of collegiate marching bands.

Aside from Catamount athletics, Cullowhee also features outstanding outdoor sporting opportunities. The area is a haven for cyclists, hosting numerous group rides and the annual Tour de Tuck bicycle ride. Anglers flock to Cullowhee for many miles of rivers and streams, and Cullowhee is a world-class boating and kayaking destination. Some Olympic athletes train in the area.

The university engages students in outdoor experiences through its Base Camp Cullowhee, a campus organization that hosts nearly 2,000 people per year on outdoor adventures and supplies students with low-cost outdoor gear and supplies. Base Camp employees serve as a resource to the Cullowhee community, providing trip advice, trail maps, and other outdoor tips to local individuals and families, and to hundreds of the millions of Americans who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway annually.

Is Cullowhee really the 199th best sports town in the United States? Scientifically, I can’t say, but when you look at the entire picture, why not? What I can do is invite sports fans of all persuasions to come to Cullowhee and find out. Attend a soccer match or a women’s basketball game. Bring your bike and ride the Ring of Fire. Float down the beautiful Tuckasegee River. Or bring your binoculars and watch track or cross country or some other Olympic sport. You may discover that The Sporting News has it right — sporting opportunities are abundant in Cullowhee.

(Gibbs Knotts is faculty athletics representative at Western Carolina University where he teaches political science and public affairs. In his free time, he attends Catamount sporting events and enjoys Cullowhee’s many outdoor opportunities.)

Survey sheds light on WCU student vision for Cullowhee

What’s a college without a college town?

It’s an almost unimaginable scenario to those who love the unique, quirky places that grow up around major universities. But it’s very much the reality when it comes to Western Carolina University and the community that houses it, Cullowhee.

Despite its proximity to the college, students hardly frequent the commercial district. Not that there’s much to draw people in — a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a barber and an auto repair shop are about the only things there, and the storefronts badly need an update.

“It’s an eyesore,” says Chris Blake, a WCU assistant English professor and co-chair of the group Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE). “If you drive through, you’ll see a number of broken signs. There are no sidewalks, no streetlights. Cullowhee is dark at night.”

The community’s appearance is a major deterrent to potential student business that’s just a stone’s throw away.

“Cullowhee is the backdoor of Western, and there is right now a disconnect between the university and the town,” says Blake. “Students don’t go to Cullowhee to do much at all.”

CuRvE’s goal is to help breathe some life back into the community. But where to begin?

“What would students like to see in Cullowhee, and what would bring them down to the area?” Blake’s group asked themselves. “We want to revitalize Cullowhee, but to do so, we need to know what it would take and what kind of changes they want to be made. If we can’t get students involved, I don’t know if it can happen.”

Enter political science professor Todd Collins. Together, the men came up with an idea to survey the student body and ask what they’d like to see in Cullowhee.

“We had been needing the data for some time, and we just did not have the means to collect it or the resources to do so,” says Blake. “Todd had the perfect connection, because his group of students is involved in survey work. This was the perfect fit.”

Collins’ students were game. They knew firsthand how students felt about Cullowhee.

“We get Chinese takeout every once in a while and we love (the Mexican restaurant), but other than that, we don’t really spend much time down there,” said Caroline Wright, a sophomore political science major. “We don’t even really drive that way.”

Collins’ classes created a 26-question survey to gauge just how students felt Cullowhee could be improved.

“We thought about what questions we wanted to be asked,” says Katy Elders, also a sophomore political science major.

Asking the students what they wanted out of Cullowhee was an approach that hadn’t been tried before.

“This is the first time anybody had tried to do any survey of the student body as a whole, and reach out and talk to students collectively,” says Collins.


Students speak

The response was overwhelming. Close to 1,100 took part in the survey, which was sent out through email. It was totally voluntary — students didn’t get a prize for participating.

“I was shocked,” said Elders. “There was more response than we’ve had for other surveys on campus.”

“I was really surprised by the number of people who had things to say other than, ‘I want a bar, or ‘I want a Burger King,’” Elders says. “There were some really long, really well-developed answers, with many people saying we like the way that Cullowhee is, and we don’t want it to lose its small-town appeal.”

The survey shed some light on how often students frequent Cullowhee businesses and their opinions about the area’s current state.

Students overwhelmingly felt that Cullowhee’s appearance could use an overhaul. About 70 percent said the appearance of businesses and buildings “needs lots of improvement,” while close to zero said that it “needs no improvement.”

Some students wrote that they didn’t feel safe in the area.

“Some said they’re afraid to go there at night because it’s dark, and not well lit,” said Collins.

When asked how frequently students use the businesses in Old Cullowhee, just 11.5 percent said they do so weekly. Most students — 32 percent — said they never use the town’s businesses. Of those who live on campus, closest to the Cullowhee commercial district, 38 percent never go there.

Yet students would be willing to go to the area if there was something to offer. Seventy-two percent said they’d frequent the area weekly if new businesses were developed there.

Simply improving the area’s appearance will attract students, according to the survey.

“Students said they’d be twice as likely to use businesses if they were just cleaned up,” Elders says.

An improved look could have further-reaching benefits, students seemed to think.

“A lot of students mentioned that they thought a nicer Cullowhee area would help with student retention, and keeping students around here on weekends,” says Collins. “It also may provide more jobs.”


Smart growth

But although students indicated they’d like more offerings in Cullowhee, they’re picky about what businesses set up shop in town.

A surprising number preached smart growth, and said they don’t want to see chain stores come to the area.

“A lot of students mentioned smart growth,” says Collins. “They didn’t want huge chains and strip malls. A lot of people mentioned trying to keep the small-town feel of the area.”

Such opinions are in contrast to Chancellor John Bardo’s proposed plan to construct a “town center,” retail complex with shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses on 22 acres of WCU’s property. Bardo has mentioned the possibility of chains like Barnes and Noble and Moe’s Southwest Grill coming to the town center.

Faculty protested the idea of major chains inhabiting Cullowhee, saying such stores could make it harder for small, local businesses to survive. Elders, like many other students, shares faculty concern about the impact of chain stores.

“I personally don’t want to see a Chili’s or Applebee’s,” she said. “I think we already have a unique set of restaurants and shops here.”

Blake stressed that Cullowhee’s identity needs to be determined by the people that live there, not an outside corporation.

“Someone could come in from outside and say we’ll make this into a town that may not have the flavor of what Cullowhee is,” he says. “The identity needs to be unique to Cullowhee, not what someone thinks Cullowhee should be.”

The issue of alcohol proved to be divisive in the survey, largely because of the chain stores that could follow. Cullowhee is dry, and needs to incorporate as a town before it can allow alcohol to be served there. The survey didn’t specifically ask about bars or alcohol. It did ask students if they favored incorporation. The majority was in favor of it, and Collins thinks that was because they support bringing alcohol to the community.

In responses to open-ended questions, many students wrote about their desire to see bars in Cullowhee. Others opposed it, and the survey revealed two camps on either side of the issue.

“You have your whole big group that really wanted incorporation because they really want alcohol, and a bunch of people who want to see local businesses as opposed to chain restaurants and stores,” said Wright.


More outdoors

A number of students advocated taking advantage of what’s already there — namely, the area’s natural resources — and placing more of a focus on recreation.

Elders says that surprised her.

“There was a significant amount in favor of recreation activities, which I didn’t anticipate would equal the desire for restaurants and other businesses,” she says. “A lot of students are interested in hiking, tubing, and fishing.”

Specifically, many students expressed desire for better access to the Tuckasegee River that runs next to WCU’s campus. Currently, one must traipse through a hill of rocks and brush to get down to the river. An access point could allow for a canoe put-in, swimming, tubing and fishing in a convenient location. Elders says she and her friends routinely drive 20 or 30 minutes out of town for places to swim and fish.

Improving river access has been a long-held desire of CuRvE’s.

“Right now, students don’t use the river,” says Blake. “We have the potential to have something very similar to Cherokee, but it will take quit a bit of money.” The Oconaluftee River that runs through the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation is a popular fishing and wading spot.


Tool for change

The survey results, the first of their kind, have the potential to be a powerful tool.

For example, said Collins, they could influence businesses to clean up their buildings, or they could help a business decide to relocate to the area by showing the untapped market that resides there. Or if a group is applying for grants to fund parks or greenways, the results are evidence of the number of people who would use them.

Plans are in the works for a second round of surveying, this time of residents in the area. For now, the survey seems to have prompted students to get on board. Many of them wrote that they’d like to volunteer in any revitalization effort.

“I just really hope that people realize we actually do care about what’s going on in the area, and that we’re not just stereotypical college students who only want to hang out and party,” Wright said.

She added that she’s personally optimistic about Cullowhee’s potential.

“It could use a little help, but I really do think that it has the potential to be a really cool little place in the mountains.”

WCU enjoys a surge in popularity

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

When Callie LaDue started shopping for a college, there was only one school that she had her eyes on — Western Carolina University.

“I liked it because it was a small campus but it wasn’t too small,” said the freshman biology major.

Moving to a small mountain town that was close to her hometown of Charlotte was another reason LaDue wanted to go to Western.

“It’s only two hours away from home,” she said.

LaDue is one of the 1,260 students that enrolled as freshmen at WCU for the 2007-2008 school year. Administrative officials were banking on enrolling 1,550 students but fell short of that goal by a small margin. However, there’s no chance the school will fall short for the fall semester of 2008.

“Our demand far exceeds our capacity this year,” said Alan Kines, WCU’s director of undergraduate admissions.

Workers at the admissions office have been sifting through piles of freshman applications. The university had received 6,388 applications as of Feb. 11, almost double last year’s number of 3,908.


A sudden spike

University officials attribute the sudden spike in freshman applications at WCU to a new marketing plan. The university has hired a Virginia-based consulting firm, Royall and Co., to help find students who would enjoy attending the small mountain university for the next four to five years, Kines explained.

The university previously attracted students by search and fulfillment practices, which is a tool that many universities use. When a student takes his or her SAT or ACT, they complete a survey. Based on the results from the survey, university officials would buy student names that meet the university criteria for acceptance. The university then mails information to these individuals to entice them to attend.

Under the new marketing plan, an extensive database owned by the consulting firm is used by admissions officials to fine-tine their search. The database contains the most recent information about students, which allows officials to target those that would be more inclined to attend WCU, Kines explained.

“We are just filling the bucket better,” he said.

Even though the university is seeing a spike in freshman applications, it doesn’t mean the WCU will be overrun with students. The university plans to enroll 1,550 students, which was its goal for last year.

“We are being very deliberate about keeping the class at a number we can house, feed and continue to have a teaching ratio of 14 to 1,” Kines said.

Additionally, the new marketing plan has university representatives hitting the highway in a statewide promotional campaign.

“We are going into areas where we can maximize the message,” Kines said. For instance, the university decided to market itself to students in Wilmington instead of Fayetteville. The move was prompted by information gathered from the consulting firm.

“We are not guessing anymore,” he said.


Different reasons

However, the university’s new marketing plan did not entice LaDue to attend WCU. She learned about the Cullowhee campus when she was in middle school.

“I had some family members come here,” she said.

The university is making an effort to increase its out-of-state enrollment. Officials are starting to reach out to students who live in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and New Jersey.

By searching for students in North Carolina and out of state — which is increasing the number of applicants — the university is able to be more selective about who it accepts. That means higher-achieving freshmen.

“The bottom line is we want better students to teach,” said Dr. Fred Hinson, senior vice chancellor of enrollment management at WCU.


System-wide spike

Western is not the only University of North Carolina system college to experience a surge in applicants. Applicant numbers are also up at Appalachian State University, said Paul Hiatt, director of admissions. Last year the university had 12,946 applications and enrolled 2,725 students. University officials are banking on this number to go up, which is causing them to bump enrollment by a small margin of 50 students.

As of last week, the university had more than 14,000 applicants for the fall 2008 freshman class and officials expect that number to rise.

“It looks like we’re getting close to 15,000 applications, and we may get as many as 16,000,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt also attributes the university marketing plan for the increase in freshman applications.

“We have a pretty extensive marketing approach,” he said.

The university hosts several workshops promoting the school in major metropolitan areas.

“We travel and do mass mailing throughout North Carolina but also the Southeast as well as the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Over the past four years officials at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have seen an increase in freshman applications as well.

“UNCG has enjoyed a steady and robust growth in applications for admission and enrollment over recent years,” said Steve Gilliam, assistant vice chancellor of university relations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As an example, freshman applications increased 24 percent—from 8,191 to 10,151— in the four-year period from fall 2003 to fall 2007. The size of the freshman class during the same period has increased 19 percent from 2,055 in 2003 to 2,445 in 2007, he said.

And university officials are expecting freshman applications to continue to rise for 2008. The university has received 8,539 applications as of Jan. 31. Last year at this time the university had 8,856 freshman applications and enrolled 2,446.

However, UNCG’s admission policy is quite different than other state university when it comes to freshman class size.

“UNCG will admit all qualified applicants and does not have a limitation on the admitted freshman class size,” said Gilliam.


Raising the bar

The academic standard to be accepted into the freshman class at WCU is on the rise as more students want to attend the school.

“We have much higher metric scores in regard to SAT and GPA scores,” Kines said.

Kines said Western is moving to the pool of top state universities, which will give high-achieving students another option for college.

“These kids have a choice of were they want to go,” Kines.

The average SAT score for WCU has risen 37 points from last year. As for GPA, the average for last year was 3.6 and this year students have a 3.71.

Officials say an advantage to high test scores and better students is that professors can teach a much more advanced curriculum.

“Students are better prepared to rise to the level of instruction,” Kines said.

Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College, says the difference is noticeable.

“The academic profile of the freshman honors student keeps on going up,” Railsback said.

The Honors College accepts 150 students a semester.

“We have raised the GPA requirement to a weighted 4.0,” said Railsback. “This is the highest for an Honors College in the state. Students who are high achievers are looking to Western.”

Railsbacks says more students are looking at WCU because of its professors and the university’s high-profile programs. Those include construction management, education, criminal justice, and health sciences. Officials are also expecting the new motion picture program to also grow quickly, Hinson said.

Requirements elsewhere send students to WCU

However, some freshmen at WCU say they wound up in Cullowhee because they did not get accepted at their first choice college. That’s what happened to Meredith Troutman of Fayetteville.

Troutman, a biology major, wants to become a marine biologist. She wanted to attend UNC-Wilmington but was not accepted. She decided to go to WCU for her undergraduate degree.

“It’s a change of scene,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the mountains, and the people are really friendly.

Since Troutman plans to become a marine biologist she will have to transfer to another school to complete her degree.

“I am going to have to transfer at some point,” she said.

Just as schools like WCU, ASU and UNCG are experiencing a surge in freshman applicants, so are schools like UNC and North Carolina State. Students who used to have the credentials to get in those schools are being turned down and end up at a college that wasn’t their first choice.

Freshman Garrett Powell of Charlotte is at Western because he says “it was easy to get into.”

Powell did not apply to any other state university. He says he liked WCU because it was located in the mountains.

“It’s real laid back here,” he said.

Powell is majoring in the university’s entrepreneurship program. It’s this specific program that attracted him to consider Western for his degree.

“Its not offered at many places,” he said.

The academic requirements to attend Appalachian State University are similar to Western. Students must have an average GPA of 3.8 and must have score of 1,190 on their SAT’s. Admission workers also look at the student’s entire application and make a decision based on a variety of factors, they said.

At UNCG, the average SAT score for the fall 2007 freshmen class was 1,039.


Staying is the hard part

At any university, many freshmen tend to drop out of school during their first year. At Western, 12 percent of the 2007 freshman class has dropped out.

LaDue’s roommate has already dropped out. She lives in Walker Hall and says that the dormitory is becoming a lot quieter since the beginning of the school year.

“There are at least six people on my floor that have lost their roommates,” she said.

LaDue says many of her freshmen classmates have dropped out after skipping too many classes.

“You have to go to class if you want to stay here,” she said.

Officials says the dropout rate at WCU is low, but Western is also a small school. Hinson says that more students are staying at Western because they want to be at the university.

“We are getting students who love the town of Cullowhee and want to be here,” he said.

He also says that the school works very closely with students through its advising department to help them when problems arise.

At Appalachian State, about 13. 4 percent of the freshman class has dropped out so far. At the University of North Carolina Greensboro the school had 10.4 percent of students leave after one semester.


Changing times

As more students look to WCU to be their alma mater, professors at the school are seeing new dynamics take place in the classroom. At least that’s what Dr. Richard Starnes, professor of history, has experienced in several freshman classes he teaches.

Starnes says the higher SAT and GPA scores are making an impact in the classroom.

“Five years ago the freshman tended to be more drawn from Western North Carolina,” he said. “But now we are seeing a good level of students from outside WNC. We are getting a good mix of urban and rural kids together, which is creating a good mix of diversity.”

Starnes says the new mix of students is creating a synergy in humanities classes

“That diversity is allowing us to explore issues that we might not otherwise have looked at years ago,” he said.

Beth Huber, director of freshman year composition, says first-year students are creating a positive impact in the classroom setting.

“I have seen quite a dramatic increase in academic preparation,” said Huber, who has been teaching English composition for the last three years.

She says more students are taking the subject more seriously and are not missing class like previous freshman classes.

“The students are writing better. I can see it,” she said. “They are working harder and they seem to want to do so.”

“Whatever the process the university is using, it’s working,” she added.

However, Jim Addison, an Honors English professor, says he has not see a change in the student’s academic performance.

“It’s been the same,” he said. Addison has been teaching at WCU for 28 years.

As Cowan ponders whether to run, a rematch in the making

Voters in Jackson County could have a rematch in the May primary between two candidates who ran against each other for county commissioner two years ago — Joe Cowan and Darrell Fox for the district that includes Webster and Cullowhee.

WCU launches ambitious $40 million campaign

Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo has officially launched the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in the university’s 118-year history, a drive to raise at least $40 million in private support to help meet a renewed emphasis on academic quality.

Broadway comes to Cullowhee

By Michael Beadle

He’s been a Beast. An alien bounty hunter. A Rum Tum Tugger and Inspector Javert.

And now two-time Tony Award-winning actor Terrence Mann is bringing his Broadway, film and TV talents to Western Carolina University as director of “The Music Man.” The musical, which runs Feb. 22-25 at the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, is Mann’s directorial debut at Western Carolina.

WCU buys on-campus commercial buildings

Western Carolina University is now the proud owner of the strip of commercial property known locally as the downtown Cullowhee business district.

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