CULLOWHEE -- Western North Carolina's own version of a Research Triangle Park took a major step toward becoming a reality Wednesday (July 12) as the General Assembly authorized creation of research and advanced technology development communities at campuses of The University of North Carolina system, including Western Carolina University.
Legislation ratified by both the N.C. House and Senate will permit Western Carolina and other UNC institutions to develop "millennial campuses," where university, private industry and government partners will work together through research and development facilities and business incubators to produce scientific and technological innovations.
The idea behind the legislation is to authorize all UNC institutions to develop "knowledge enterprise zones" similar to the Centennial Campus at N.C. State University and the Horace Williams Campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo, who testified on behalf of the legislation both in the House and Senate, called the millennial campus concept "an exciting new proposal to utilize the new, high-tech economy of the 21st century to enable the university to become an engine for the economic development of the region."
"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."
The "millennial campus" concept, part of a national trend, would enable campuses of the state university system 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.
Passage of the legislation makes 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. Universities will be authorized to obtain land adjacent to or near campus and to lease property to private industries seeking to locate to the area.
Western began seeking the legislation more than a year ago in cooperation with UNC's General Administration.
"This will be a real asset for economic development, not only for Jackson County, but for the entire western end of the state," said Tom McClure, director of the Office of Regional Affairs at WCU. "We have had support from all of the Western North Carolina delegation to the General Assembly."
Bardo, who praised Senate higher education committee co-chairs Howard Lee (D-Orange) and Walter Dalton (D-Rutherford), and bill sponsor Fountain Odom (D-Mecklenburg) for their support, said WNC Sens. Dan Robinson (D-Jackson) and Charles Carter (D-Buncombe) have been key supporters in advancing the bill in the Senate, while Rep. Phil Haire (D-Jackson) was instrumental in moving the legislation through the House.