University of North Carolina Asheville students are seen here working in a lab. Photo courtesy of UNCA website.

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It’s not in any of the ads or education materials, but if there is any theme for how the state plans to spend $2 billion in bond money on the primary ballot, “something for everyone” would be a good description.

Part of that is due to the way projects proposed for funding were spread out geographically and part is due to the nature of what’s being funded.

The bond package, settled on after a marathon round of deal-making in the 2015 legislative session, was stripped down from a $3 billion plan that included transportation spending to one that focused on parks, water infrastructure and universities and community colleges.

That focus, which included strategies like a mandate to pay for projects in all 41 state parks, spreads funding throughout the state.

As a result, if passed, the state’s western region, would see a far higher percentage of the bond money than it has in the past.

Campus impact

The biggest example of funding for the west is in higher education, which includes major projects aimed at science and technology improvements at all three state universities in WNC, including $21 million for major renovations at UNC-Asheville, $70 million for a new health sciences building at Appalachian State University and $110 million for a new science and STEM education building at Western Carolina University.

The bond also provides $58 million in start up funding for a new School of Science and Math campus in Burke County to serve the region.

In all, the state is allocating about $260 million for campus projects to the region, roughly 27 percent of the $980 million earmarked for the UNC system. That’s a considerable jump compared to the 2000 higher education bond which sent $230 million of the $2.5 billion total, less than 10 percent, to the region.

For WCU Chancellor David Belcher, a new science building is a must if the school is able to keep up with the needs of the the region.

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With a proposed $110 million in bond money, the science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education building is the biggest ticket item in the bond package for UNC system. It’s been a long time coming.

Belcher describes the school’s current Natural Sciences Building as “vintage 1970s technology.”

The school has tried to work around it as best as it can, he said, but the design and lab counter-spaces have long outlived their usefulness.

“There just isn’t any flexibility,” he said. “It’s not really adaptable for contemporary work.”

David Evanoff, assistant professor of analytical chemistry and head the Department of Chemistry and Physics, said the current facilities can’t house newer types of instrumentation that require a steadier power supply and better controls on temperature and humidity.

“We just don’t have that in this building,” he said. The new building, he said, will do much more than provide the kind of lab space and infrastructure needed to support modern research.

Right now, he said, students are attending STEM classes in buildings all over campus and there is almost no space anywhere they can get the benefit of in class science demonstrations.

“We’re missing quality and quantity of space,” Evanoff said. Because of that, he said, students aren’t getting as much experience in teamwork and experimentation, the kind of active learning that’s key STEM education and an important part of preparing future STEM professionals.

“Employers are looking for people with good experience with teamwork and we need to have a building that’s conducive to that,” Evanoff said.

Belcher said he also sees WCU’s need to improve its science facilities as an important step to providing a quality workforce to meet the changing needs of the region.

“When that building was built in the 70s we had 15 nursing students,” he said. “Now we have 400.”

That increase and the additions of programs in engineering and technology means WCU has far more students whose majors require classes in biology, chemistry and physics.

He said the new building is vital to their education and vital to the region. He said recent reports of the extent of the nursing shortage in WNC and the region’s aging population underline the need to push ahead.

“We feel compelled to continue to build these programs to serve the region,” he said.

What’s in the bond for WNC Universities

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  • North Carolina School of Technology and Engineering — The bonds set aside $58 million for planning and renovation work for a new STEM education high school campus in Morganton. The new school will be part of the UNC system’s School of Science and Math. While just outside the 18-county WNC region as defined by Carolina Public Press, the facility would clearly serve WNC in a way that the existing campus in Durham is unable to do.
  • Appalachian State University — The bond would fund $70 million toward construction of a new 200,00 square foot building for the Beaver College of Health Sciences providing additional space for nursing, social work nutrition and health and exercise science programs. The building would be constructed on land donated by the Appalachian Regional Health Care System near the Watauga Medical Center. The university would also receive renovation funds for Edwin Duncan Hall.
  • UNC-Asheville — No new construction is planned under the bond program, but the school would receive the lion’s share of the bonds budget for university repair and renovation funding with $21.2 million earmarked for a major upfit for the 36 year old Owen Hall, which would house management and art programs and a new mechatronic engineering program in conjunction with North Carolina State University.
  • Western Carolina University — At $110 million, the school’s proposed new science and STEM education and research center is the largest bond project in the UNC system

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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