Taylor, Western officials break ground on Regional Workforce Development Center

CULLOWHEE — U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor joined Western Carolina University officials Tuesday (Dec. 14) to break ground for the Regional Workforce Development Center, a high-technology training facility to be built on Western’s campus with $8 million in federal funds obtained over the past few years with Taylor’s support.

About 75 people representing education, business, industry and economic development sectors of Western North Carolina braved a brisk December wind to take part in a ground-breaking ceremony on the site of the new facility, to be constructed between the existing Belk Building and E.J. Whitmire Stadium. The 28,000-square-foot center is designed to address critical workforce issues facing Western North Carolina by providing educational programs that will support emerging high-tech, “new economy” industries.

The center is a major part of a workforce development initiative announced by Taylor in 1997 that also includes a consortium of WNC education and research leaders who are developing a regional focus for workforce development to increase employment opportunities in the mountain region, Taylor said.

“This is one component of an effort that I think will change Western North Carolina, especially educationally and, ultimately, economically,” Taylor said.

“If we in Western North Carolina can pool our resources and raise our education system to the point that we can be competitive in the field of high-tech manufacturing, if we can have research that can bring young entrepreneurs from the halls of these universities into the inventive areas, then we can have an economy that is much stronger than we have today. Rather than losing the 20,000 jobs that we’ve lost in Western North Carolina in the last two years, we’ll be building a better future for the young people here,” he said.

The new center will enable Western Carolina University to provide the type of high-technology education that will be necessary for WNC to be economically competitive in the 21st century, which is a major goal of WCU’s faculty and staff, said Chancellor John Bardo.

“Western North Carolina is a special place. It’s a place where people believe in the old adage of a good day’s work for a good day’s pay,’ and they’re willing to put in the effort to work well and hard to make their communities prosper. At the same time they’ve been willing to put in the effort, however, they’ve been forced to deal with low-income jobs and, in many cases, to leave their communities to find the kind of work that will allow their families to have economic security. That’s a problem and it’s been a problem here for generations,” Bardo said.

“Today, Congressman Taylor has made it possible for Western to take a major step to reverse this long-term pattern. What the Regional Workforce Development Center does for Western is it allows us to prepare people from Western North Carolina to support diversification of the economic base and to enhance the ability to attract and keep high-dollar, high-value jobs,” he said. “The people of Western North Carolina, particularly the students of Western Carolina University, will benefit from this building for generations to come.”

Phillip Walker, a member of Western’s board of trustees from Hickory, accepted the Regional Workforce Development Center. “On behalf of the trustees of Western Carolina University, it is an honor to accept this building — the Regional Workforce Development Center,” said Walker. “The significance of this building and the program it will house represents an important focus for the future of this university, its students and the region.”

Among the programs expected to be housed in the new facility are integrated multimedia-based programs that include digital video, digital sound recording and media production; applied engineering facilities and laboratories for technology-based manufacturing, three-dimensional epoxy laser modeling and information network design.

Some of those programs played roles in the ground-breaking ceremonies, with a robotic arm holding up a sign welcoming visitors to campus, then picking up a shovel to join in for a photo-op. WCU’s Technology Ensemble, which combines traditional and technology-based instruments, performed music during a post-ceremony luncheon.

The center also will include a center for professional selling, in which Western’s marketing students will focus on business-to-business sales. The professional selling center will be the first of its kind east of Memphis, Tenn., university officials say.

The Regional Workforce Development Center is expected to be complete by the summer of 2001.