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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Green shoots: Appalachian State University expands to Hickory

Remove Hickory from North Carolina’s largest metropolitan areas without a
four-year public university.

Hundreds of students like 2023 East Burke High School graduate Macy Carson started classes in late August at Appalachian State University’s campus in Hickory, resurrecting a five-story, 225,000-square-foot building originally used as a furniture market.

“I really do think I’m going to get my dreams accomplished here,” says Carson. The Hickory campus allows Carson to attend Appalachian State and live at home. Carson also benefits from a $2,000 “Hickory First Scholarship,” offered to all inaugural students, cutting tuition to about $6,000 a year, before any other financial aid.

“It’s really close to home, and the price is really good,” says Carson. She hopes an entrepreneurship degree will help her start a business putting her artwork on clothing and other items.

The Hickory campus also may help Appalachian State meet its dreams of greater influence beyond its mostly built-out main campus in mountainous Boone, 45 miles to the north. About 21,250 students attend there, a 15% increase from a decade earlier, making it among the fastest-growing schools in the 16-campus UNC System.

Initial enrollment in Hickory was 363 students, and that number should double next year and continue to double for several years, Chancellor Sheri Everts says. University officials expect the Hickory campus to mainly draw students from the Unifour counties of Catawba, Burke, Caldwell and Alexander, which have a combined population of nearly 400,000.  In comparison, Appalachian State’s home county of Watauga had about 54,200 residents in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

$1 million purchase
The new campus occupies the former Hickory Furniture Mart that opened in the 1960s. Corning Optical Communications later bought the building as its headquarters and employed as many as 800 people there before moving to north Charlotte in 2019, says Vice Chancellor Nick Katers.

Appalachian State bought the property for $1.02 million in 2021, then received $9 million from the state for renovations and technology upgrades. The six-floor building, including an under-ground floor, is bigger than any facilities on the
Boone campus.

It’s the most prominent office building along the U.S. 321 corridor between the Virginia and South Carolina state lines, says Catawba County Economic Development President Scott Millar. Adding Appalachian State buttresses Catawba County’s economic efforts, he says. Hickory has a thriving community college and Lenoir-Rhyne University, a Lutheran-affiliated liberal arts institution with enrollment of about 2,700, including graduate students.

“[Appalachian State] opens up another pathway for students to maneuver around for better opportunities and find their way to the top,” says Millar. 

The university is using the 65,000 square feet on the first floor for 10 classrooms, student services and common areas. About 50 professors are teaching at the site. The building’s fifth story will be used for administration, while the below-ground floor features a gym. The second story will open next fall with more classrooms.

A commons area once had about 100 cubicles for Corning employees, Katers says. It now includes sofas, chairs and desks, and places for small groups to work without disruption.

Having a public university near her home means Keonna Reinhardt (pictured) can complete a finance degree, a decade after she graduated from  Catawba County’s St. Stephens High. She went to community college, she says, but lacked direction and then became pregnant. Her 6-year-old son, Jacobi, started first grade this year.

“I wanted to go back to school, but the only thing stopping me was finances,” she says. The Hickory campus means she can work as a waitress and care for her son, while attending school full time. 

“When I woke up I was a little nervous, so I said a prayer,” says Reinhardt. “And now, here I am. Classes are about to start, and I don’t have any worries.”

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