CULLOWHEE — Western Carolina University broke ground Thursday (March 8) for its Fine and Performing Arts Center, a $30 million facility designed to serve both as a new home for WCU’s burgeoning academic programs in the arts and humanities, and as a cornerstone in the university’s and region’s efforts to grow and develop.
About 150 people gathered on a chilly March morning to watch as WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo, board of trustees chair Adelaide Daniels Key and N.C. Rep. Phillip Haire (D-Jackson) took shovels in hand to officially break ground on the 121,000 square-foot Fine and Performing Arts Center.
The center is the largest of 17 projects on tap at WCU that will be funded through the $3.1 billion higher education bond package approved in a statewide referendum in November. A total of $98.4 million in construction and renovation is slated to occur on the campus over the next eight years. Western is able to proceed quickly on construction of the center because design and site preparation work, including the extension of utilities to the site, already has been completed through previous appropriations by the N.C. General Assembly.
“This ceremony is, indeed, a significant occasion in the life of our university,” said Key. “Many of you here today have shared with us the excitement and the anxiety that has come with following this dream of a Fine and Performing Arts Center. Today brings the reality — the promise of a much-needed facility for our campus and its students, as well as for our region and its citizens.”
When complete, the Fine and Performing Arts Center will provide classrooms, studios, galleries and support space for students majoring in the arts and humanities, and a 1,000-seat hall for music and theatrical performances. Consolidating all of Western’s fine and performing arts into an integrated complex reflects the importance of the arts not just to the campus, but to the surrounding region and its economic future, Bardo said.
“We believe at Western that we can play an important role in the cultural tourism phenomenon that is affecting Western North Carolina, because when you look at this region, one of the serious problems we have is a lack of destinations.’ We have the capacity in our arts program and in the kinds of activities that arts programs spawn to create a true destination at Western,” Bardo said. “When you look at what cultural tourists want, it’s the same thing that we need for our students. It’s events, it’s activities, it’s enlightenment, it’s enrichment. And the arts can provide those things.”
Bardo said the arts, as well as athletics, play a crucial role in the public’s perception of colleges and universities. “Because of the nature of universities, people can’t really know the product until they’ve experienced it. You can’t go test drive an education. You can’t take it for a spin around the block. That’s why people operate mainly on image, on what the image of the institution is and what they imagine the university is about,” he said. “People who care about the performing arts care about them as deeply, as thoroughly and as meaningfully as anyone who ever cared about a basketball or football team.”
In presenting the building to the university on behalf of the state, Haire reminded the crowd that the center, first discussed some 25 years ago and designated as WCU’s top capital improvements priority in 1995, became reality when more than 70 percent of N.C. voters supported the higher education bond package in November. “It comes as little surprise to those of us who know Western Carolina that one of its first uses of the bond issue would be to build something that would serve the whole surrounding area,” Haire said. “Since Western was founded as a small teachers’ college a little more than a century ago, it has served as a beacon of knowledge for the people of the mountains. This fine arts center is no different. As a contribution to the region’s tourism industry, it is an extension of the university’s mission, and that is to serve as a major public resource for Western North Carolina.”
Members of the board of trustees, the university council for the fine and performing arts, and other arts patrons attended a special breakfast program prior to the ground-breaking, enjoying musical entertainment by some of WCU’s music students and faculty who will one day be housed in the facility.
“I really don’t think that I’m exaggerating by saying that today’s groundbreaking and what it symbolizes will be one of the most important days in the history of Western Carolina University,” said Robert Vartabedian, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences and master of ceremonies for the breakfast program. “I guarantee you that the creative arts will be more than thriving at Western Carolina University for years to come. In the words of Henry James, It is art that makes life, makes interest, and makes importance.'”