Orange County

N.C. House endorses NCCU dorm and UNC-CH Fetzer Field projects

N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill are on the way to securing state permission to move several major construction projects forward.

On Wednesday, the N.C.House gave its preliminary approval to to a capital-projects bill that among other things authorizes NCCU to borrow about $6.5 million for a continuing renovation of Baynes Residence Hall, one of two high-rise dorms on the Durham campus that tend to house incoming freshmen.

The same bill allows UNC-CH to borrow up to $30 million to go through with the planned revamp of the Fetzer Field soccer complex and its surrounding athletic facilities, and up to $21.9 million to move animal-research labs ahead of the scheduled replacement of the School of Medicine’s Berryhill Hall education building.

Those projects and others for UNC system campuses have already been through a Board of Governors review, but the N.C. General Assembly gets the final say on whether campuses can borrow money for them, said state Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, the House Finance Committee senior chairman.

“The university cannot borrow money without permission from the legislature, including in cases where the full faith and credit [of the state] is not involved,” he said during an earlier committee review.

For N.C. Central, the borrowing allowed by the bill would round out a $12.2 million project budget for the Baynes renovation, an effort to upgrade the university’s third-largest dorm and one officials hope to complete in 2019. Construction has unfolded in stages, with workers knocking out what they can through the summer. Eventually, they’ll replace the dorm’s roof and elevators, remove any asbestos and in general bring the structure up to present-day code.

NCCU is short enough of on-campus housing that shutting down the building completely while it undergoes renovation has never been an option.

Interim Chancellor Johnson Akinleye and other officials are using cash to cover part of the bills, but figure on needing to borrow money for the rest. Housing fees charges to students will cover the ensuing debt-service payments.

Closer to the action

Meanwhile at UNC-CH, the upcoming replacement of Fetzer Field will put fans of its soccer and lacrosse teams in seats closer to the action, by doing away with the track that now surrounds the field. The concept’s similar to what Duke University did with its renovation of Wallace Wade Stadium.

Along with the work at Fetzer, UNC-CH intends to erect another indoor/outdoor practice facility for its football team. All told, the combined project will cost an estimated $55 million. Officials expect the Rams Club to foot the bill, but want permission to borrow seed money for the project up front while the boosters continue to raise money.

Elsewhere in the UNC system, the bill among other things would give East Carolina University the OK to borrow $55 million to renovate its football stadium, and greenlight the capital end of the recovery plan system officials have crafted for Elizabeth City State University.

The Elizabeth City State end of things was the only thing Brawley took time Tuesday to sell to Finance Committee members, as legislative staffers had previously voiced skepticism about the idea of giving the coastal campus another $10 million in borrowing authority.

Their report on the bill questioned how “rating agencies and the bond market” will react to the campus going deeper in debt, given its struggle to reverse a multi-year drop in enrollment.

They also said it’s unusual to allow a campus to borrow money to demolish buildings, which is part of what system and ECSU leaders want to do to spruce up the grounds and improve the institution’s appeal to would-be students.

But Brawley voiced confidence in the system’s plan, which includes a debt refinancing to free up some of ECSU’s capital.

Elizabeth City State “has fallen on hard times, but this is the only university in northeast North Carolina and it will become the educational hub of that part of the state,” he said.

The bill got through the Finance Committee without apparent dissent, and on Wednesday’s vote members voted 113-3 in favor of it. Chamber rules reqiuire one more vote before the measure goes to the state Senate, but it would be highly unusual for House’s position on the bill to change at this stage of the process.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg