2013 Fire: Updates and Frequently Asked Questions

UPDATE: ATM to be taken out of service Feb. 26

February 3, 2015

Development of a new mixed-use facility on the Western Carolina University campus will require the removal of the N.C. State Employees’ Credit Union’s free-standing automated teller machine on Centennial Drive.

The credit union’s CashPoints machine will be taken out of service and the ATM kiosk will be removed beginning Thursday, Feb. 26, to enable developers of the mixed-use facility to start site preparation work, including demolition of existing structures.

The Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the commercial strip along Centennial Drive, is proceeding with development of a 120,000-square-foot building featuring a mix of residential space and commercial and dining establishments.

The mixed-use facility will rise on the site of a structure damaged when fire broke out in the morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, severely damaging three restaurants on the ground floor of the two-story structure – a Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito, and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe.

The timetable for the project calls for construction to begin this May with completion in August 2016.

CashPoints machines are located in A.K. Hinds University Center and at the Cullowhee branch of the N.C. State Employees’ Credit Union on Little Savannah Road across N.C. Highway 107 from the main WCU campus.

 

UPDATE: Construction of mixed-use facility at site of fire to begin

January 21, 2015

Image provided by Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Company provide an early look at the possible building design for a new 120,000-square-foot structure featuring a mix of residential units and commercial and dining establishments scheduled to be built on the Western Carolina University campus beginning this spring.

Image provided by Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Company provide an early look at the possible building design for a new 120,000-square-foot structure featuring a mix of residential units and commercial and dining establishments scheduled to be built on the Western Carolina University campus beginning this spring.

The next phase of a project on the Western Carolina University campus to build a new mixed-used facility on the site of a structure damaged by fire in November 2013 is expected to get underway this spring, university officials said.

The current timetable for the project, which will result in a 120,000-square-foot building featuring a mix of residential units and commercial and dining establishments on the ground floor with student residential spaces on the upper floors, calls for construction to begin in May. The facility is expected to include a total of about 380 student beds.

The Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the commercial strip along Centennial Drive in the center of campus where the blaze occurred, has selected Ambling University Development Group to develop the new mixed-use facility.

(See the entire article at Construction on mixed-use facility to get underway this spring.)

 

UPDATE: Decision announced on fire-damaged property

February 21, 2014

After reviewing cost estimates, tax assessments and anticipated insurance settlement proceeds, the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University has decided against replacing or repairing three dining establishments damaged by a November fire.

The board of the Endowment Fund, which owns the commercial strip along Centennial Drive in the center of the WCU campus where the fire occurred, has agreed to proceed with demolition of the property, followed by private development of a new mixed-use facility on the site.

In reaching its conclusion, the board also weighed factors such as the historic significance of the property to the campus community, the contributions to WCU culture made by private businesses operating in the center of campus, and ongoing support by members of the campus community for owners and employees of the affected businesses.

The resolution approved Feb. 5 by the Endowment Fund board authorizes WCU officers to demolish the buildings damaged by the fire and notify all endowment fund tenants, including those not affected by the fire, that lease terms expiring in May will not be renewed, except on a month-to-month basis.

In addition, after a competitive process determined by the university, the board will select a private developer to build the mixed-use facility with a goal of occupancy in August 2016. All structures currently located along the commercial strip will eventually be removed.

University representatives have personally notified all owners of business enterprises on Centennial Drive of the decision, and wanted to be sure the owners were aware before informing the larger community, WCU officials said. Demolition of the damaged property is tentatively scheduled to begin March 10.

Earlier this winter, an independent architectural and engineering firm provided WCU officials with a series of estimates on the cost to replace or repair damaged buildings occupied by Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito, and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe.

Based on estimates from Clark Nexsen, the cost of replacing the damaged property, including additional expenses associated with bringing a structure originally built in the 1940s up to current building codes, would be more than $1.5 million.

The firm also provided an estimate of approximately $629,000 on the cost of demolishing the two severely damaged businesses – Subway and Rolling Stone Burrito – and reconstructing the Mad Batter property in compliance with modern building code.

In order to rebuild, North Carolina law would require the Endowment Fund to make a variety of physical improvements called for by current building codes. County and state officials also recommend that these improvements, such as making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, be made at parts of the property not affected by the fire, such as Bob’s Mini Mart.

According to Jackson County’s records, the tax value of the structure is assessed at $254,430.

The Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund could have opted to tap into its assets to make up the anticipated significant difference between the pending insurance settlement and the cost to repair or replace, but the majority of the fund’s assets are restricted. Interest earned by the unrestricted portion of the fund’s assets is used for academic purposes, including student scholarships and student support. Tapping those unrestricted assets would have had the effect of reducing funds available for student scholarships, which are already at an unacceptably low level, university officials said.

Development of a mixed-use facility, expected to include commercial interests such as dining and retail establishments on the ground level with student housing space on upper floors, is among the recommendations in the campus master plan, approved by the WCU Board of Trustees in December.

The Subway, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe were located on the ground floor of the fire-damaged two-story structure. The building was formerly the site of the Townhouse restaurant, a longtime campus landmark and a popular gathering place for students, faculty and staff from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. No injuries were reported during the fire, which broke out in the morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 21.

Teresa Williams, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund, said she and her fellow board members agonized over the decision, but that proceeding in this fashion made the most sense financially.

“Quite honestly, we felt we had no choice but to proceed in this direction,” Williams said. “While we understand the affection that many in our campus community feel for these establishments and this property, we cannot in good conscience divert precious dollars designated to scholarships for students and other academic support.”

Owners of the existing establishments along the commercial strip will have the right of first refusal for commercial space in the new building, university officials said.

 

UPDATE: WCU receives cost, tax documents on campus fire

Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014

An independent architectural and engineering firm has provided Western Carolina University officials with a series of estimates on the cost to replace or repair three dining establishments damaged by a November fire on the WCU campus.

No injuries were reported during the fire, which broke out in the morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 21, in the commercial strip of Centennial Drive in the center of the WCU campus. The blaze damaged the Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe.

The cost of replacing the damaged property, including additional expenses associated with bringing a structure originally built in the 1940s up to current building codes, is approximately $1.5 million, according to a report issued by Clark Nexsen.

The firm also provided an estimate of approximately $629,000 on the cost of demolishing the two severely damaged businesses – Subway and Rolling Stone Burrito – and reconstructing the Mad Batter property in compliance with modern building code.

A copy of the report from the firm can be found at Repair/Replace Cost Estimates.

The report of the repair and replacement cost estimates will be provided to the N.C. Department of Insurance. In addition, WCU officials will provide a copy of Jackson County’s records on the tax value of the structure, which has been assessed at $254,430. A copy of the tax records from the county can be found at Jackson County Records (HTML).

The Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of WCU, which is the owner of the property, is evaluating the information to determine next steps.

 

Update: State issues report on Nov. 21 campus fire

UPDATE: Monday, Dec. 9, 2013

The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees approved the campus master plan at its regularly scheduled meeting last Friday (Dec. 6). The plan, which can be accessed at masterplanning.wcu.edu, contemplates a “mixed-use facility” at the corner of Centennial Drive and Central Drive that includes student residential facilities and ground-level retail shops. No decisions have been made at this juncture, but university trustees and administrators will continue to evaluate this recommendation in light of current circumstances.

Additionally, university officials received the damage assessment report from the State Construction Office late last week. A copy of that report can be accessed at http://www.wcu.edu/WebFiles/PDFs/StateConstructionReport-12-3-13.pdf. The university still has not made a decision with respect to the replacement and/or repair of the part of the building affected by the fire. The university has engaged outside architects and engineers to evaluate the damage and provide cost estimates for the replacement and/or repair of the affected part of the building, as well as the requisite building code upgrades. These cost estimates must be provided to the N.C. Department of Insurance in connection with its valuation of the claim, and will be integral to the university’s evaluation of options.

 

Officials await answers on Nov. 21 fire

POSTED: December 3, 2013

Some Cullowhee kids left a message for the owners and employees of the damaged businesses. Several signs have been posted on the wooden barricade surrounding the damaged building.

Some Cullowhee kids left a message for the owners and employees of the damaged businesses. Several messages have been posted on the wooden barricade in front of the damaged building.

The future of three dining establishments damaged by a November fire on the Western Carolina University campus remains unknown as state insurance and construction officials continue analyzing the structural integrity of the building and conducting a financial assessment of the damages.

Representatives of the State Construction Office and N.C. Department of Insurance were on the scene the day after the fire to begin their work. University officials say they do not know how long that work may take, but caution that it could require as long as a year to complete.

No injuries were reported during the fire, which broke out in the morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 21, in the commercial strip of Centennial Drive in the center of the WCU campus. The blaze damaged the Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe.

The businesses are located on the ground floor of the two-story structure. The second story of the building, which had contained apartments until several years ago, was unoccupied. The section of the building that houses Bob’s Mini Mart was not damaged.

The property affected by the fire is owned by the WCU Endowment Fund and leased to the business owners. The structure was formerly the site of the Townhouse restaurant, a longtime campus landmark and a popular gathering place for students, faculty and staff from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s.

“We certainly would like to know as quickly as possible what will happen with this building located in the heart of campus,” Chancellor David O. Belcher said. “But we also realize that there are state policies and procedures that must be followed, and we understand that the process inevitably will take some time. We will keep the campus and community informed as additional information becomes available.”

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q: What caused the fire?

A: Although WCU has not received the official report from the State Bureau of Investigation, the preliminary determination from investigators is that the fire was electrical in nature and originated in the rear of the commercial complex. The fire does not appear to have been set intentionally.

Another message posted on the barricade surrounding the damaged building.

This photo shows another message posted on the barricade in front of the damaged building.

Q: Where do we go from here? What’s the process going forward?

A: Although the building that has housed Subway, Rolling Stone Burrito, the Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe, and Bob’s Mini Mart is owned by the WCU Endowment Fund, the structure is insured by the North Carolina Fire and Casualty Fund, just like other buildings on campus. After the fire, WCU’s Office of Safety and Risk Management immediately made a claim with the State Department of Insurance (DOI). Representatives from DOI visited the site the day after the fire to begin their investigation and evaluation of the claim. The process that DOI uses to evaluate the extent of damage caused by the fire, the value of the structure, and the financial liability owed by the insurance fund is very lengthy, likely taking several months and perhaps up to a year or even longer.

Additionally, a representative from the State Construction Office was on site the day after the fire to assess the extent of the damage to the building. We should receive a written report from that office shortly, which hopefully will let us know the extent to which the building is salvageable. The report also should provide direction concerning current access to the building and any attendant safety issues.

Q: Is the university responsible for replacing the furnishings and equipment used by the businesses?

A: No. The Endowment Fund standard lease agreements required each business owner to obtain a renter’s policy of insurance covering damage to business furnishings, equipment, goods, inventory and the like.

Q: Will WCU repair or replace the building?

A: At the current time, we do not have enough information to answer this question. We can, however, provide a summary of the information and concerns that will have to be factored into this decision:

• How much money will the Endowment Fund eventually receive from DOI in settlement of this claim? DOI will adjust the claim based on current market value of the building, not the replacement value. As a consequence, in all likelihood it will require a significant amount of money over and above the probable insurance proceeds to replace the building exactly as it was on the day of the fire.

• Even if funds became available to replace the building as it was on the day of the fire, North Carolina law prohibits us from doing this. The state will require the Endowment Fund to make certain physical improvements required by current building codes at the time of any repair or replacement. These improvements, such as making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, would have to be made at Bob’s Mini Mart as well, even though that part of the building was not affected by the fire.

• The potential cost to the Endowment Fund of the two concerns listed above is expected to be prohibitive. The Endowment Fund reserves are minimal at best, and the bulk of its financial assets are dedicated to funding student scholarships.

• Although the Board of Trustees has not yet approved the final draft of the proposed new campus master plan, the plan contemplates a mixed-use building at the same location as the commercial strip at some point in the future. The consideration of potential Endowment Fund expenditures to repair or replace the building will have to balance the strategic value of that space against the historic place those businesses have had in our campus community.

Q: If state officials determine that damage to one of the businesses is not as bad as to the others, is there any way that the single business could be repaired separately?

A: Probably not. At this time, it appears that the DOI will adjust the claim as a whole and make one payment on the claim. If this answer changes as the process moves forward, we will provide updated information.

Q: Could the damaged businesses relocate to another WCU building?

A: No. WCU is subject to a North Carolina law that basically makes it unlawful for a state agency to compete with private businesses (the Umstead Act). Under that law, the lease of any space in a WCU building to a private entity for the purpose of operating a business, such as the three businesses affected by the fire, is strictly prohibited. The businesses were permitted to operate at the building damaged by the fire because the Umstead Act does not apply to Endowment Fund property. Unfortunately, the Endowment Fund does not own any other suitable property. Additionally, the circumstances pertaining to Starbucks and all of the other food franchises on campus are different. WCU has an exclusive food services management contract with Aramark for the management and operation of all of the university’s food services. In turn, Aramark has contracted with certain franchises to provide food services. University meals/food sales are specifically exempt under the Umstead Act.

Q: Can concerned individuals make donations to the Endowment Fund that are earmarked to make repairs to any businesses affected by the fire?

A: No. The Endowment Fund, which is exempt from state and federal income taxation, may only receive and use charitable contributions that further WCU’s mission – teaching, research and service.

Q: Is the university doing anything to help the fire victims?

A: While we await definitive information about the building, our immediate and most pressing concern is for the business owners and their employees. The university will be working with the Cullowhee United Methodist Church and its Wesley Foundation, the Student Government Association, CuRvE, and other campus and community organizations to host a fundraising event at the beginning of the spring semester. Additionally, the university and its employees are assisting Dr. Lane Perry in organizing an effort to fill “WHEE Support You” gift baskets for the employees of the affected businesses, including gift cards and other useful items. To contribute, please contact Dr. Perry at lanegravesperry@gmail.com or at (828) 246-5171. Cash contributions may be made at this time via the Wesley Foundation by contacting Jay Hinton at jay@wcuwesley.com.

WCU student Emily Jaynes throws a pie into the face of Joseph Queen, a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, during a Thursday, Dec. 5, fundraiser to assist the owners and employees of the fire-damaged businesses.

WCU student Emily Jaynes mashes a pie into the face of Josef Queen, a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, during a Dec. 5 fundraiser, “Pie A Pi Lam.” Proceeds from the fraternity’s event will benefit the owners and employees of the fire-damaged businesses.