Press release from Western Carolina University, shared Feb. 21:
CULLOWHEE – After reviewing cost estimates, tax assessments and anticipated insurance settlement proceeds, the board of trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University has decided against replacing or repairing three dining establishments damaged by a November fire.
The board of the Endowment Fund, which owns the commercial strip along Centennial Drive in the center of the WCU campus where the fire occurred, has agreed to proceed with demolition of the property, followed by private development of a new mixed-use facility on the site.
In reaching its conclusion, the board also weighed factors such as the historic significance of the property to the campus community, the contributions to WCU culture made by private businesses operating in the center of campus, and ongoing support by members of the campus community for owners and employees of the affected businesses.
The resolution approved Feb. 5 by the Endowment Fund board authorizes WCU officers to demolish the buildings damaged by the fire and notify all endowment fund tenants, including those not affected by the fire, that lease terms expiring in May will not be renewed, except on a month-to-month basis.
In addition, after a competitive process determined by the university, the board will select a private developer to build the mixed-use facility with a goal of occupancy in August 2016. All structures currently located along the commercial strip will eventually be removed.
University representatives have personally notified all owners of business enterprises on Centennial Drive of the decision, and wanted to be sure the owners were aware before informing the larger community, WCU officials said. Demolition of the damaged property is tentatively scheduled to begin March 10.
Earlier this winter, an independent architectural and engineering firm provided WCU officials with a series of estimates on the cost to replace or repair damaged buildings occupied by Subway sandwich shop, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe.
Based on estimates from Clark Nexsen, the cost of replacing the damaged property, including additional expenses associated with bringing a structure originally built in the 1940s up to current building codes, would be more than $1.5 million.
The firm also provided an estimate of approximately $629,000 on the cost of demolishing the two severely damaged businesses – Subway and Rolling Stone Burrito – and reconstructing the Mad Batter property in compliance with modern building code.
In order to rebuild, North Carolina law would require the Endowment Fund to make a variety of physical improvements called for by current building codes. County and state officials also recommend that these improvements, such as making the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, be made at parts of the property not affected by the fire, such as Bob’s Mini Mart.
According to Jackson County’s records, the tax value of the structure is assessed at $254,430.
The board of trustees of the Endowment Fund could have opted to tap into its assets to make up the anticipated significant difference between the pending insurance settlement and the cost to repair or replace, but the majority of the fund’s assets are restricted. Interest earned by the unrestricted portion of the fund’s assets is used for academic purposes, including student scholarships and student support. Tapping those unrestricted assets would have had the effect of reducing funds available for student scholarships, which are already at an unacceptably low level, university officials said.
Development of a mixed-use facility, expected to include commercial interests such as dining and retail establishments on the ground level with student housing space on upper floors, is among the recommendations in the campus master plan, approved by the WCU board of trustees in December.
The Subway, Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe were located on the ground floor of the fire-damaged two-story structure. The building was formerly the site of the Townhouse restaurant, a longtime campus landmark and a popular gathering place for students, faculty and staff from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. No injuries were reported during the fire, which broke out in the morning hours of Thursday, Nov. 21.
Teresa Williams, chair of the board of trustees of the Endowment Fund, said she and her fellow board members agonized over the decision, but that proceeding in this fashion made the most sense financially.
“Quite honestly, we felt we had no choice but to proceed in this direction,” Williams said. “While we understand the affection that many in our campus community feel for these establishments and this property, we cannot in good conscience divert precious dollars designated to scholarships for students and other academic support.”
Owners of the existing establishments along the commercial strip will have the right of first refusal for commercial space in the new building, university officials said.