With Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature Friday, June 19, on a legislative “mini-budget” providing the final $16.5 million appropriation to fund replacement of Western Carolina University’s decades-old steam plant, university officials say that late Chancellor David O. Belcher must be smiling down from above.
Belcher, who died in June 2018 after a two-year battle with brain cancer, was a vocal advocate for funding to address what he characterized as “one of the most acute and critical infrastructure needs facing our campus – our antiquated steam plant.” He dubbed the dilapidated facility “the steam museum,” and it became the poster child for deferred maintenance problems across the University of North Carolina System.
During the March 2, 2018, ground-breaking ceremony for the new Tom Apodaca Science Building, an event attended by more than a dozen current and former members of the General Assembly and other state officials, Belcher made one final plea on behalf of upgrading the steam plant, said Melissa Canady Wargo, the university’s chief of staff.
“The Apodaca Science Building ground-breaking was the last time that David Belcher spoke in public before he passed,” Wargo said. “His wife, Susan, was speaking on his behalf, and she asked him at the end of the ceremony if he had anything he wanted to say. David walked up to the microphone and said in a dramatic whisper, ‘steam plant.’ It was a funny and moving moment for something he’d worked so hard to secure for Western Carolina University.”
With the enrollment growth that WCU has experienced in the past several years, the university in 2012 identified replacement of the steam plant with a more efficient and more reliable energy source as its No. 1 capital improvements project. The steam plant, which includes elements that are nearly 100 years old, supplies heat and hot water to most of campus.
University officials have been concerned for years that the university is just one harsh winter or one catastrophic mechanical failure away from a complete campus shutdown because of a lack of steam to heat buildings and hot water. That nearly occurred in the winter of 2016, when the oldest boiler failed, resulting in the need to install costly temporary boilers with a projected lifespan of only 10 years. In addition to providing enhanced reliability of the university’s source for heat and hot water, a replacement energy production facility is expected to result in improved energy efficiency and reliability.
As part of the 2017 budget bill, legislators appropriated $750,000 for WCU to begin planning and design of a replacement for the steam plant, with an initial installment of $16.5 million included in the state budget approved in 2018. The second $16.5 million installment was included in the proposed budget for 2019, but that overall state spending plan hit an impasse when the governor and legislators were unable to reach agreement on details.
In the face of lingering disagreement over the entire state budget package, the General Assembly has tackled certain high-priority items through a series of “mini-budgets.”
With approval of the steam plant funding by both the House and Senate finalized by Cooper’s signature on the legislation, university officials say they are ready to begin work on the long-awaited project.
“We are sitting on ‘go,’” said Joe Walker, associate vice chancellor for facilities management. “We have completed as much planning and preparation work as we could. Now that the bill is approved and signed, we can seek bids on the project as soon as the money is released by the state.”
The WCU Board of Trustees in September 2019 approved a design concept that will incorporate a portion of the existing steam plant, including its historic smokestack, into a modern energy production facility. The new plant will be a two-story structure, with boilers, piping and a control room located on the top floor and water pumps, treatment equipment and generators on the lower floor. The existing steam plant will remain in use, providing hot water and heat to campus buildings until the new facility is operational.
While the new facility will have its own smokestack, the design approved by the board keeps the current iconic smokestack as a nod to university history. The design also calls for maintaining the existing facade facing Central Drive, with its large windows as a visually appealing architectural element, he said. The new facility will include a lobby, administrative offices and space to display some of the old plant’s equipment, including a steam whistle once used to signal the start and end of a work day, midday lunch break and, with a long continuous blast, special events or warnings.