Taking part in a ceremonial groundbreaking for Western Carolina University’s new health sciences building are, from left, WCU student representative Steven Whitehorn; WCU faculty representative Sharon Jacques; Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo; Linda Seestedt-Stanford, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences; Steve Warren, vice chair of the WCU board of trustees; and N.C. Rep. Phil Haire.
Against an acoustic backdrop of bulldozers and bagpipes, Western Carolina University officially “broke ground” Thursday, Sept. 3, for its new $46 million health sciences building scheduled to open in 2012.
A crowd of about 200 people – including university faculty, staff and students; state and local officials; Western North Carolina health care professionals; and contractors and architects – were on hand for the ceremonial turning of dirt at the building site off of Little Savannah Road.
Site preparation is under way for the 160,000-square-foot health sciences building – the first facility to be constructed on 344 acres across N.C. Highway 107 from the main campus that were acquired in 2004 as part of the university’s Millennial Initiative. A comprehensive regional economic development strategy, the initiative involves developing neighborhoods anchored by an academic building and surrounded by related private industry and government partners.
“This building represents a milestone in the history of this university,” WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo said. “For far too long, the people of Western North Carolina have had to rely on a single industry. We must diversify the economic base and focus on the future. Through the Millennial Initiative and this building, we are trying to create a synergy between the private sector, government and education to help create an economy based on health and healthy people.”
Prior to the ceremony, Myrtle Driver of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians walked the land and blessed the ground where Native American artifacts and other relics were discovered during early phases of site preparation. Linda Seestedt-Stanford, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, recognized the historical and cultural significance of the setting.
“It would appear that this land we stand on today was used as a gathering place. Knowledge was passed from generation to generation. Learning and communication were the basis for survival, innovation and growth,” Seestedt-Stanford said. “With the sky and trees providing a canopy, the Cherokee walked, lived and learned on this land. Today, we rededicate this site, soon to have a canopy of glass and steel, to teaching and learning, and we pray that the spirits of those who have walked before us inspire new knowledge and bless this building and the faculty, students and patients who will walk its halls in 2012.”
Steve Warren, vice chair of the WCU board of trustees and a 1980 graduate of WCU, said that the new building and the Millennial Initiative are in keeping with the vision, faith and confidence of those who founded the university 120 years ago.
“Our founders may have never believed our university would have made it across the road, but I can imagine their pride if they were here today,” Warren said. “It has been said that none of us will outlast the future, but we will live on in the future that we make. This building is only the first of many that will give testament to the wonderful future we are building for our students and our region, and we rejoice in that future.”
Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a 1987 graduate of WCU who attended Upward Bound programs at the university in 1979, said that he is amazed at the changes he has seen in Cullowhee over 30 years.
“I rode around campus the other day, and I don’t think that there are two places in Western North Carolina that are growing as much as Western Carolina University and Cherokee,” Hicks said. “What impresses me most is to see what a collaboration that is happening in rural Western North Carolina. Our future truly has only begun.”
N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson, said that he has been a legislative supporter of the WCU project in large part because of its focus on health care for the aging population. Haire cited federal reports predicting a 35 percent increase in the number of retired baby boomers between 2010 and 2020, and naming the WNC counties of Jackson and Graham among the top 50 counties in the nation for growth of the retiree population.
“We know what the mountains mean to us, but these mountains are starting to mean a whole lot to other people,” he said.
When open, the building will house about 80 faculty members and serve more than 1,000 students in graduate and undergraduate programs, including nursing, social work, physical therapy, athletic training, environmental health, health information administration, nutrition and dietetics, emergency medical care, recreational therapy, and communication sciences and disorders.
The building will have 13 classrooms, 20 program-specific laboratories, four research laboratories, specialized outpatient health and rehabilitation clinics, offices, gathering spaces and a coffeehouse. Among unique features of the building are extensive videoconferencing and telemedicine capabilities, and a video production studio. Faculty members will be able to view live video feeds of interaction between patients and students, and host guest speakers who are off-site.
The facility will feature a rehabilitation pool where students will learn and practice aquatic therapy – thanks to a gift from WestCare Health Systems. The board of trustees of WestCare also recently signed an agreement expressing the regional medical system’s intent to lease or purchase about 25,000 square feet of office space in a proposed multitenant structure that would be built adjacent to the new health sciences building, as part of the public-private partnership effort.
The building’s size and parking will allow for growth of clinics previously limited by space, such as the Speech and Hearing Center, and development of unique clinics that support community needs. Also, university and health care partners are discussing the possibility of creating specialty clinics such as a fall and balance center, and dysphasia clinic.
The new building will become WCU’s second-largest building – smaller than 200,000-square-foot Ramsey Regional Activity Center but larger than the 140,000-square-foot Scott Residence Hall and 130,000-square-foot Fine and Performing Arts Center.
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Last modified: Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009