Senate committee endorses creation of “Millennial Campus” sought by WCU

CULLOWHEE — A Senate higher education committee has unanimously endorsed legislation that would authorize the creation of research and advanced technology development communities at campuses of The University of North Carolina system, including Western Carolina University.

The legislation would permit Western Carolina and other UNC institutions to develop “millennial campuses” similar to the 1,000-acre Centennial Campus at N.C. State University. The Centennial Campus is a “knowledge enterprise zone” where university, private industry and government partners work together through research and development facilities and business incubators to produce scientific and technological innovations.

The “millennial campus” concept, part of a national trend, would enable the UNC campuses to redesign education and research efforts to include faculty spin-off companies, real-world experience for students, and closer ties to the industries that translate research into quality-of-life improvements for the public.

Western began seeking the legislation more than a year ago in cooperation with UNC’s General Administration. WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo, who spoke Wednesday (June 7) before the Senate higher education committee, said WNC Sens. Dan Robinson (D-Jackson) and Charles Carter (D-Buncombe) have been key supporters in advancing the bill in the General Assembly. Bardo also praised committee co-chairs Howard Lee (D-Orange) and Walter Dalton (D-Rutherford), and bill sponsor Fountain Odom (D-Mecklenburg) for their support. A companion bill in the House has been introduced by Rep. Phil Haire (D-Jackson).

“Rural economic development is one of our most identifiable needs in North Carolina,” Robinson said. “The location of a millennial campus west of the Balsams in southwestern North Carolina could be the springboard that would help provide good paying jobs for our young people who so desperately want to stay in this beautiful area.”

Carter called the proposal a significant economic development initiative for WNC. “This may be our greatest opportunity to bring high-tech, good-quality jobs to all of Western North Carolina,” he said. “I think it’s particularly good to have this centered at Western Carolina University, because Western has so many strong ties to all of the counties of the region. Western has access to the land, and has the resources necessary to develop a millennial campus. The state legislature now needs to provide the university with the ability to do so.”

Passage of the legislation would make it possible for UNC institutions, including WCU, to acquire property to create “millennial campuses,” develop public/private partnerships, incubate small businesses, and utilize existing electronics infrastructure to support economic development efforts.

Bardo told the Senate committee that the millennial campus concept is “an exciting new proposal to utilize the new, high-tech economy of the 21st century for the development of the region.” He reminded legislators that steps taken by the university over the past few years — including the completion of a technology infrastructure that made WCU the first fully wired UNC campus and the first in the system with a computer admission standard, and a federally funded workforce development training center — would enable Western to become an engine for economic development for the mountains of North Carolina.

“Creation of a millennial campus at Western would position the university to help the people of Western North Carolina as never before by attracting to the region the type of high-tech businesses that will pay a living wage,” Bardo said. “We have long been proud of the high quality of life in the mountains and of the strong work ethic of our people. But it is a major goal to give the people in the mountains an opportunity to remain in the mountains and earn a good wage, instead of watching as our brightest young people — the very people we need to lead this region — move away for the high-paying, high-tech jobs in the Research Triangle area and Atlanta.”

Under the legislation, universities would be authorized to obtain land adjacent to or near campus and to lease property to private industries seeking to locate to the area. While the land would remain in the hands of the state, improvements including buildings would be private, adding to the local tax base, said Jay Denton, Jackson County Board of Commissioners chairman. “If this millennial campus comes to pass, it would greatly expand opportunities, including new business opportunities, new jobs and new home-building,” Denton said. “It would basically open up Jackson County to a whole new avenue of commerce and allow us to retain and employ our own manpower, our pool of young people who so often have to leave the area to find good, high-paying jobs.”