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State officials break ground on $110M Apodaca science building

Former state Sen. Tom Apodaca, state officials and Western Carolina University break ground on Apodaca Science Building. [PHOTO BY JOHN PANNELL] Former state Sen. Tom Apodaca, state officials and Western Carolina University break ground on Apodaca Science Building. [PHOTO BY JOHN PANNELL]

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There is an empty lot behind the Natural Sciences Building on Western Carolina University's campus. It's covered in grass and on Friday afternoon it was muddy. During a groundbreaking ceremony, Western Carolina and an all-star lineup of state officials praised the $110 million building that will rise from the site over he next three years.

The new building, named for former State Senator Tom Apodaca, will contain 182,989 square feet and be six stories tall. The Natural Sciences Building that it will replace dates back to 1970s. Apodaca retired from the North Carolina Senate in 2016.

Apodaca is one of the more well-known alums of Western Carolina University. Having graduated with a degree in Business Administration and a minor in Economics.

“I never went in the science building,” Apodaca told the crowd, provoking laughter. “I made it a point not going into the science building when I was at Cullowhee.”

Despite the jokes, Apodaca certainly does see the merit in higher education having sponsored such legislation during his time in the NC Senate. One such bill was the Access to Affordable College Education Act from 2016. He has a scholarship endowment at WCU. The Pilar C. Apodaca Schalorship is named for his grandmother, a second-generation American from Mexico. According to WCU's website, the scholarship is granted to students of high academic performance, good citizenship and community service with a preference given towards Hispanic Americans.

After the groundbreaking ceremony, WCU officials Apocada's colleagues in the North Carolina Senate. Tom Belt, coordinator for WCU's Cherokee Language Program, delivered a Cherokee blessing.

Speaking to his accomplishments as a member of the NC Senate was president pro tempore Phil Berger, who jokingly described his colleage as part teddy bear and part grizzly bear because you would never know which one you were going to get. Berger also joined in on jokes about Apodaca having a science building named after him.

“Everyone knows that economics is referred to as the 'dismal science,' so this building is perfectly apt for someone who is a economic minor,” Berger said. “Tom understands that college is a significant investment that leads to higher paying jobs, a better-skilled workforce and stronger local economies. He knows that escalating costs and rising student debt are threatening the value of that investment. That’s why, as a state senator, he spearheaded the NC Promise program, which guarantees in-state undergraduate students at three public universities across our state – including Western Carolina University – pay just $1,000 in tuition each year.”

The tuition plan starts this fall at WCU and at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.

UNC system President Margaret Spellings noted that Apodaca had always supported his alma mater.

“Growing up in North Carolina, you went to Cullowhee, forged a deep bond with your school, then stayed in the region and launched a highly successful career creating companies, serving the state and ultimately succeeding at the highest levels of state government,” Spellings said. “And at every step along the way, you gave back to your alma mater, lifted it up alongside you and fought for it in Raleigh. And you’ve delivered results for this university, just as you delivered results for the entire UNC System and for the entire state.”

Made possible through funding from the 2016 statewide $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum, the Apodaca building will replace WCU’s existing, 1970s-era Natural Sciences Building. Construction will begin later this year, followed by completion and occupancy by June 2021. The building will include five stories of laboratory, classroom, assembly and office space, with the sixth story serving as a “mechanical penthouse.” It will feature a large, 150-person lecture hall, a science commons area on the first floor and a rooftop plaza for astronomy observations.

The WCU Board of Trustees voted in December 2016 to name the building in honor of Apodaca in recognition of his years of service to and support of the Western North Carolina region and the university, including his time as a member of the WCU Board of Trustees and his extensive advocacy for the university in the General Assembly.