WCU exploring student housing, broadband partnerships

Western Carolina University has issued requests for proposals for two possible public-private partnership projects, one that could lead to student housing on the university’s West Campus and one that could improve broadband internet service to the Cullowhee Valley.

The university, through its Endowment Fund, is investigating the possibility of leasing Millennial Initiative property on the west side of N.C. Highway 107 to a private developer at a time when WCU is experiencing significant growth in student enrollment and housing needs.

“We want to make sure that, if the private sector is unable to keep up with our growing student body, we can help spur that private development through strategic partnerships,” said Mike Byers, vice chancellor for administration and finance at WCU. “This is purely an exploratory activity at this point. We would proceed only if private development of off-campus housing does not happen naturally.”

WCU’s student enrollment has increased nearly 18 percent since 2011, and university officials are anticipating even more interest from prospective students beginning in fall 2018. That’s when the N.C. Promise tuition plan, which will reduce out-of-pocket tuition costs to $500 for North Carolina undergraduates and $2,500 for out-of-state undergraduates, takes effect.

The university has plans to build two new residence halls – a 600-bed facility on the historic hill area of campus that is expected to be ready for occupancy by the 2019 fall semester and a 400-bed building on the lower part of campus that is anticipated to be completed by fall 2020. But, WCU also will be taking a serious look at its older housing inventory and may determine that it is more cost-effective to demolish some of those residence halls rather than attempt to renovate and bring them up to contemporary building standards, Byers said.

“Our projections call for a net gain of perhaps 100 additional student beds, once we have completed the construction, renovation and demolition process,” he said. “At our current growth rate, there won’t be enough housing, either on campus or off, to accommodate our student body of the future. That’s why we are testing the waters to see if there may be interest on the part of private developers in partnering with us to help meet the demand for housing.”

The project, if it comes to fruition, would take place somewhere on WCU’s West Campus, which is currently home to the Health and Human Sciences Building, with a medical office building, the first privately developed structure built as part of the Millennial Initiative, in the planning stages.

The Millennial Initiative is WCU’s comprehensive regional economic development strategy designed to enable the university to engage in public-private partnerships that enhance educational opportunities for students and increase the ability of faculty to conduct research, while also promoting regional development. As part of the initiative, the university acquired 344 acres of property adjacent to the main campus in 2005; that tract often is called the West Campus.

On its second request for proposals, the university is seeking potential private partners who might use power utility poles and other assets owned by WCU’s electricity distribution service, known as Western Carolina Power, to expand broadband internet access to rural areas near campus that are underserved or, in some cases, not served at all.

The university, which today provides electric service for more than 3,350 customers in the area, began producing electricity for the campus out of necessity nearly 100 years ago, using the Tuckaseigee River to generate hydroelectric power. WCU got out of the power generation business by the early 1960s and began purchasing power from Nantahala Power & Light (now Duke Energy) for campus and for resale to existing customers off campus.

With officials in Jackson County pointing to the expansion of broadband internet service as essential to economic development, university leaders came to realize that they could offer access to the assets of WCU’s power system to interested broadband providers, Byers said.

“Broadband today is similar to the need for electricity many years ago in that it is essential for businesses to function and grow. It is vital to Cullowhee Valley, which is the fastest growing area of Jackson County,” he said. “In recent years, it has become evident that access to adequate internet speeds has become a major element in the decision-making process for faculty, staff, students, business developers, entrepreneurs, retirees and others in search of a home or business location.”

The goal of the project is to make a significant difference in broadband speed, quality and coverage in the Cullowhee Valley, Byers said, adding that the university encourages multiple proposals that suggest alternatives, incentives or provisions that achieve that goal. “The availability and affordability of broadband access is vital to the progress of any community, and especially in a vibrant and growing university community located in a more rural setting,” Byers said.

Proposals for the off-campus housing project are due Feb. 2, 2018. Proposals for the broadband internet project are due March 9, 2018. For more information, visit this website.