A Brief History of Cape Fear Community College
While its name has changed over the last 50 years, the mission of Cape Fear Community College has remained the same - to provide world-class workforce training to the citizens of southeastern North Carolina.
Every day life in the Cape Fear region during the mid-50's was very different than it is today, but one fact of life remains the same: the need for quality job training and education for local citizens to keep the economy strong and improve the overall quality of life.
In the mid-1950's, the need for job training was especially dire. The local economy had slowed since the end of World War II with the close of the shipyard. In 1955, Wilmington's largest employer, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, announced that it would leave the area for a new home in Florida. The company's departure was a huge blow to the area’s economy and left downtown Wilmington, which was the city’s main commercial sector, a virtual ghost town.
Fortunately in 1957, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill to create a system of Industrial Education Centers around the state. On April 3, 1958, the Wilmington Industrial Education Center was founded as one of seven such education centers around the state.
The Industrial Center, as it was known, opened its doors in 1959 at a building at Thirteenth and Market St. built with funds supplied as part of a local bond issue. The center offered courses for high school students during the day and classes for adults at night. The 32,000-square foot facility included shop areas, classrooms, chemistry labs, physics labs, library and a small administrative office.
Popular courses included radio and television repair service, heating and air conditioning service, internal combustion engine repair and draftsmanship. Graduates were trained for a specific job and went to work right after graduation.
The demand for classes at the center was strong right from the start. The 32,000-square foot facility was intended to serve 500 students, but 750 students actually attended in the first year.
In addition to providing job training for individual student needs, courses were developed for new or expanding companies and industries that were new to the area or already here.
As the job training demands of the community increased, the school quickly outgrew its facilities on Market St. The centers leaders also realized that separate training programs were needed for adult students and the high school students.
In 1963, the North Carolina State Legislature approved the Community College Act, which formally established the WIEC as strictly a training center for adults. High school students continued to use the facility, but under the supervision of the public school system.
Also in 1963, enrollment at the Wilmington Industrial Education Center topped 1,900 students - making it the 2nd largest school in New Hanover County. The ongoing growth of the school made it obvious that larger facilities would be needed to meet the community’s needs.
State lawmakers passed the Community College Act, which then officially transformed the center into Cape Fear Technical Institute into 1964. Former associate director of the Wilmington Industrial Education Center Malcolm J. McLeod became CFTI’s first president. The board of trustees was expanded and was comprised of local business leaders which developed strong ties to the community.
With the strong support of local industry as well as the Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100 and the Merchant’s Association, a $575,000 bond issue was proposed to match federal funds for building new facilities to be used exclusively by the Industrial Center. It was decided that the institute's new facilities would be located in downtown Wilmington as part of a $58.8 million project to bring new life to the riverfront. The first buildings downtown opened in 1967. The new facilities allowed Cape Fear Tech to expand it's offerings to include new programs and enroll more students in the programs with high demand.
Having a riverfront location was also critical to the needs of CFTI's newly-established Marine Technology program, which was the first of its kind in the state and second in the nation. Students in the program got hands-on training in commercial fishing, boat building, marine salvage, diving, marine engineering, environmental protection, and fish farming.
CFTI began offering adult literacy classes to help tackle the problems of unemployment and low income which goes hand in hand with the lack of education.
Over the next two decades, Cape Fear Tech grew in popularity, and classroom space again became in short supply. One unique effort at solving the classroom shortage included the purchase of a World-War II 150-foot long barge to be used as a floating classroom building for Marine Technology. It had four decks and covered 28,000 square feet. Students and faculty worked to renovate the facility and used it for nearly five years.
In 1972, voters passed a $3.6 million bond to allow Cape Fear Tech to build additional buildings, including the seven-story McLeod Building on Front St.
The additional space allowed the institute to add new programs like criminal justice, boat building, industrial electricity, commercial fishing and much more.
The next major transformation came in 1989 when CFTI was renamed Cape Fear Community College and began offering a two-year college transfer program, which quickly gained in popularity among students who wanted to earn a bachelor's degree.
Throughout the 1990's and the early 21st century, CFCC has doubled its academic offerings and its facilities to keep pace with the dramatic growth of the area and the increasing job training needs of employers and new industries moving to the area.
With the support of local taxpayers, CFCC opened a new campus in northern New Hanover County in 2002.
Today, CFCC is the fifth largest community college in the state. With over 27,000 students taking classes every year, Cape Fear Community College touches every aspect of our community. Over 80% of CFCC students live and work in our local area before enrolling and stay in the area after graduation.
The college's economic impact is felt throughout New Hanover and Pender counties by generating an additional $435 million in business sales and $192 million in labor income each year.
CFCC graduates can be found everywhere - From the nurses who take care of us in the hospital to auto mechanics who repair our cars - From the firefighters and law enforcement officers who keep us safe to the chefs who work in our favorite restaurants. In short, the success of CFCC's graduates is reflected in the quality of life here in the greater Wilmington and surrounding area.
With the continued support of local citizens, CFCC will continue to strive to start new educational programs and services to make the Cape Fear region the very best it can be.