North Carolina voters have spoken, and they agree that Western Carolina University needs a replacement for its antiquated Natural Sciences Building.

During the state’s primary election Tuesday, March 15, voters overwhelmingly approved the Connect NC bond initiative, which will provide $2 billion in funding for repair and renovation for North Carolina infrastructure. With the voters’ endorsement of the bond issue, WCU will receive $110 million to replace its 1970s-vintage science building, which had become a statewide rallying symbol for the bond referendum.

Nearly 66 percent of North Carolina voters approved of the bond issue, while about 34 percent of voters cast their ballots in opposition to the proposal, according to results from the State Board of Elections. The unofficial tally has 1,401,801 voters in favor of the bond proposal and 736,488 opposed to it.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher thanked North Carolina’s voters for approving the Connect NC bond proposal.

“Through their endorsement of this bond proposal, the voters have indicated their willingness to make a significant and wise investment in the future of their state by supporting their public university and community college systems, as well as other state infrastructure needs,” Belcher said.

“I also must thank Gov. Pat McCrory for his leadership in getting these important statewide infrastructure matters onto the ballot, and members of the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle for providing broad, bipartisan support to this effort,” he said. “This is an important day for the future of North Carolina.”

Voter approval of the bond proposal came after a flurry of activity leading up to Tuesday’s vote, including a visit by McCrory to Asheville on Monday – the day before the primary – to seek support for his Connect NC initiative.

McCrory convened a panel consisting of Belcher, University of North Carolina Asheville Chancellor Mary Grant, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College President Dennis King, State Budget Director Drew Heath and Major General Greg Lusk of the North Carolina National Guard to discuss the advantages of the bond proposal.

“As I traveled the state after becoming the 74th governor of the greatest state in the United States of America, I got to see things that you normally don’t get to see. And what I saw was a decaying infrastructure, which was not in the condition it should be, not only for today but for the next generation,” McCrory said.

“At Western Carolina, when I went out and saw the science building, I was embarrassed,” he said, referring to a May 2015 visit to WCU’s Natural Sciences Building. “If we’re going to try to get the best of the best students we can in a lab that looks like it’s a laboratory for the 1950s, not for 2016 much less the next generation, we’re in trouble. This lab is in terrible, terrible shape, and I saw this throughout the state.”

Three days earlier, new University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings held a press conference to help publicize the bond referendum as part of her two-day visit to WCU. (See related story)

“We are grateful to the voters for approving the Connect NC bond package and for their demonstration of support and confidence in our public university and community colleges,” Spellings said Tuesday night after projections indicated the bond would be approved.

“North Carolina is known for its longstanding commitment to public higher education, and the economic return on that investment has been tremendous. Today — at the ballot box — our citizens reaffirmed that historic commitment,” she said. “With their votes, they said that higher education must continue to help meet the needs of the state and to open the doors of economic opportunity for their children and grandchildren.”

Now that voters have approved the issuance of the bonds, the university will immediately advertise for a building designer, said Mike Byers, WCU vice chancellor for administration and finance. “If all goes well, we could have architectural renderings in a year,” Byers said.

Construction could begin in early 2018 and be completed in early 2020, said Joe Walker, WCU associate vice chancellor for facilities.