Just under one year ago, spirits on the Western Illinois University campus were at their lowest after the announcement of 132 faculty and staff layoffs, the largest in university history. Contracts were reduced, enrollment was low and hope was even lower.
At points, there was even discussion about the future of Western and if it would still be alive or not. However, over the past year, the health of the university has slowly improved with the announcements of higher retention rates, enrollment drops slowing and perhaps the biggest announcement of all, a multi-million dollar project coming to campus.
On Feb. 10, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made an announcement that lifted the spirits of many around Western Illinois’ campus. He announced that the Illinois Capital Development Board had released $8.9 million to Western to restart the Center for Performing Arts project on campus. Interim President of WIU, Martin Abraham, spoke about how important this investment was for Western.
“People had been asking ‘Is Western still going to be there?’,” Abraham said. “The answer now is an unequivocal yes. We’re going to be here for the foreseeable future.”
When the project’s jumpstart was first announced, Abraham thanked the governor for the vote of confidence in Western Illinois.
“We are greatly appreciative to Gov. Pritzker, the General Assembly and the Capital Development Board for releasing the funds to revise the original concept, and begin the process, which we are hopeful will finally lead to the fruition of the WIU Center for the Performing Arts in Macomb,” Abraham said. “We look forward to the day we can begin building this amazing facility that will benefit our students, faculty and staff, as well as the region. Thank you to our legislators, businesses, alumni, friends, donors, the General Assembly and the governor for their continued support of Western.”
According to Abraham, the restart of the project was expected back in December, but the funds were not released until mid-January. He also said that there are potentially more projects that may be on the way.
“We’re on the docket for a science center now, which I’m already hearing, the next building is coming,” Abraham said. “So, we’re expecting that we’re going to continue to get these types of funds. The governor is very committed to higher education.”
The $8.9 million will go toward the updating of the designs of the center and construction is expected to begin in the fall 2020 semester and is planned to take two to two and a half years to complete. The building will replace parking lots and tennis courts to the south of Brown Hall and will take a projected $89 million to complete, all of which is coming from capital funding.
The Center for Performing Arts project had been in the works for years and had stalled in 2014 due to the budget impasse that left many higher education institutions in Illinois reeling.
Chairperson of the Department of Theatre and Dance, Tammy Killian, spoke about keeping her faith that the project would one day happen.
“I never gave up hope,” Killian said. “I can’t say that I expected that the construction on the building would start this year but in my heart, I knew it would happen. WIU and the Department of Theatre and Dance deserve facilities that are as dynamite as our programs. I have faith that some folks in leadership know that and are willing to fight for us.”
Killian also spoke about the state of her department following the layoffs of 2019 and her hope for the future of the program.
“The morale in the Department in Theatre and Dance was definitely low last year as we lost important contributors to our program with the most recent lay-offs but this year we have regained strength in recruiting and retaining the best students,” Killian said. “I think the announcement of the revival of the CPA project has propelled us to a new high. Faculty, students and staff are very excited and ready to start this new chapter in our history.”
Killian says that the announcement didn’t feel real for many faculty members and students in the program and that Alum social media groups are already planning reunions to celebrate.
One of the biggest hopes for the new center is the possibility of attracting new students to Western’s campus and Killian says that she has already begun to plan for the future.
“It’s really fun to talk about the possibilities for the future with students and pontificate about all the possible future shows,” Killian said. “We have already begun to throw around ideas about our inaugural season. Talking about all that we could do in the new space helps illustrate the possibilities to prospective students. The response has been great and I feel as if it will only get better. We are currently creating a mailing/email detailing the features of the space to send to prospective students and families.”