The History of Cape Fear Community College

While its name has changed over the last five decades, the mission of Cape Fear Community College has remained the same – to provide world-class workforce training and quality higher education opportunities to the citizens of southeastern North Carolina.

Everyday life in the Cape Fear region during the colleges early days was quite different than it is today, but one fact of life remains the same: the need for 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.

Wilmington Industrial Center in 1959Wilmington Industrial Center in 1959
Students study drafting at the Wilmington Industrial CenterStudents study drafting at the Wilmington Industrial Center

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 center’s 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.

Proposed river front expanasion, 1965.Proposed riverfront expansion in the Star News, 1965.
Galehouse building during construction.Galehouse building during construction

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 its 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.

CFCC's first Marine Technology research vessle the S.S. AdvanceCFCC’s first Marine Technology research vessel the S.S. Advance

To more clearly reflect its expanded role and mission, the Board of Trustees later recommended that the school again change its name. The New Hanover County Commissioners concurred with the Board, and on January 1, 1988, the institution officially became Cape Fear Community College (CFCC).

CFCC is one of fifty-eight such institutions comprising the North Carolina Community College System. The System is funded primarily by the State of North Carolina under the direction of the State Board of Community Colleges, and CFCC is governed by a local Board of Trustees. The North Carolina Community College System was authorized by the North Carolina General Assembly, Chapter 115D (originally 115A) of the General Statutes.

Throughout the 1990’s and into the 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 and is currently expanding in both New Hanover and Pender counties to serve the needs of its citizens and businesses.

CFCC offers 78 academic programs in curriculum areas and hundreds of courses in continuing education. The college is a major player in economic development and business recruitment for the entire Cape Fear region. Small businesses and international corporations like Verizon and GE Hitachi have utilized CFCC’s customized training services to keep their employees up-to-date on the latest technology and best practices to stay competitive.

Today, CFCC is the fifth largest community college in the state and one of the largest employers in the local area. With over 30,000 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.

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.

Campus Growth Highlights

CFCC’s (then Cape Fear Technical Institute) first buildings were funded following a favorable vote of the citizens of New County for a $575,000 bond issue to provide for a technical institute facility, and a $0.02 tax levy for its support, $500,000 in matching funds from the 1963 Vocational Education Act Appropriation.

The College operated in county-owned buildings on Market St. until the new facilities were completed in the summer of 1967. These facilities included a four-story main building, a separate automotive shop, and a pier and docking facility for the College’s marine technology training vessels.

In the general election of 1972, the citizens of New Hanover County approved another bond issue for $3,675,000 for the expansion of the College’s facilities. This resulted in a seven-story building that provided additional classrooms, shop, and office space, with one floor devoted to the library.

In 1982 the New Hanover County Commissioners responded favorably to a request made by the Board of Trustees to purchase and renovate a facility to house second year electronic and instrumentation technologies curricula. The building, located three blocks from the main campus, was renovated to meet the needs of the two curricula at a total cost to the County of $300,000. Computer Engineering Technology was later offered in the same building.

In 1990, a satellite facility was completed in Pender County in Burgaw, and in 1994, a renovated school building was opened in Hampstead. Both sites offered curriculum and continuing education courses.

Board of Trustees at the Ribbon Cutting for the McKeithan Center.Board of Trustees at the Ribbon Cutting for the McKeithan Center.

In November 1993, CFCC benefited from a successful state-wide bond issue of $8,300,000 for construction in New Hanover and Pender counties. Four months later in March 1994, voters in New Hanover County approved the issuance of $13,900,000 in bonds to make $22,300,000 immediately available to the College for sites and construction. In November of 1997, the voters of New Hanover County again supported a $38,300,000 bond referendum for Cape Fear Community College. At the time, this represented the largest local bond referendum ever for a North Carolina community college. As a result, property (145 acres) in the northern part of New Hanover County was purchased in 1998 for a North Campus. The first building on the North Campus, the McKeithan Center, opened in the fall of 2002 and the second building, Applied Technologies, opened in the fall of 2005.

In 2005, the Pender County Commission requested that CFCC discontinue use of the old Topsail High School in Hampstead for classes, effectively displacing about 300 students who enrolled per semester at that location.

In 2006, the College and the City of Wilmington agreed to an exchange of property in downtown Wilmington wherein the College exchanged approximately 3.5 acres of property at the far north end of the Wilmington Campus for 4.0 acres of City property formerly occupied by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and located approximately in the middle of the campus.

In 2007, the College employed engineers and architects to evaluate the 51,000 square feet building obtained by CFCC in the 2006 property exchange with the City of Wilmington to determine the feasibility of renovating the building for college use. These evaluations determined that the College would be unable to use the building for either classroom, office, or storage purposes due to numerous site and structural issues that could not be remedied.

In 2008, a partnership between New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, and Cape Fear Community College resulted in the construction of a $10,500,000 Safety Training Center on a 14-acre site at the North Campus for in-service training of fire, rescue, and law enforcement personnel. The facility includes a seven-story drill tower, a residential burn building, a commercial burn building, a tear gas building, a classroom building, drafting pits for testing pumpers, an open burn pad, and a truck driver training off-road range.

Cape Fear Community College's North CampusCape Fear Community College’s North Campus

In November of 2008, the voters of New Hanover County overwhelmingly approved a $164 million bond referendum by 62% to provide additional facilities for the College—again the largest such local bond referendum ever for a North Carolina community college. The projects financed by those bonds include an additional parking structure, a one-stop center for student support and business office services, additional classroom/laboratory space for biology and health sciences, additional classroom/laboratory space for humanities and fine arts to include an auditorium, and classrooms/laboratories for advanced and emerging technologies.

In 2009, a 30,000 square-foot building was added at the North Campus with the ground floor of the two-story structure designated for the Wilmington Early College program and the remaining space allotted for Cosmetology, Nail Technology, and Esthetics.

In 2009, Mr. Alston Burke, a retired educator and longtime Pender County resident, donated 25 acres for a campus for the College in Surf City. The appraisal value of the gift exceeded $1.8 million, and CFCC named the campus in honor of Mr. Burke.

In 2010, the College acquired a 3,400 square-feet metal building at the northeast corner of Second and Red Cross streets to replace some of the maintenance space lost in the 2006 property exchange with the City of Wilmington.

In 2010, a 400-vehicle parking deck was completed at the corner of Front and Nutt Streets on the Wilmington Campus.

Groundbreaking for the first of the 2008 bond-financed projects, a 1,200 vehicle parking deck, also took place in late 2010 on a site east of the Schwartz Center. Groundbreaking for the new “Union Station” building, a six-story building consisting of 250,000 square feet, followed on January 26, 2011. The new Union Station building drew inspiration for its distinctive design and its name from the former Union Station railroad depot which stood at the corner of Front and Red Cross streets until its demolition in 1971 by the city.

Additional facilities financed by the 2008 bonds include a Humanities and Fine Arts building with a 1,570 seat auditorium to be located in the 600 block west of Third Street and a multi-building Advanced and Emerging Technologies Center to be constructed at the North Campus.

In 2011, a $2.3 million building was approved by the Board of Trustees for the Alston Burke Campus in Surf City, NC, the first such facilities to be constructed on this new location. The first building at the Alston W. Burke Campus was named after Surf City Mayor A.D. “Zander” Guy.

Enrollment Growth

The number of people served annually by the College has risen from 750 during its early years of operation to more than 30,000 per year in 2011-12.


In 1969 the College was granted status as a Special Purpose Institute by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The following year the Commission on Colleges granted membership to the College contingent upon successfully completing a self-study within the next five years. This was accomplished and at the Association’s meeting in 1975, the College was granted membership status. In December 1986, in 1996, and again in June of 2007, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmed its accreditation of Cape Fear Community College.

Institutional Leadership

The following Presidents have served the College from its beginning as an Industrial Education Center to present:

Mr. George H. West 1959 – 1964

Mr. M. J. McLeod 1964 – 1985

Dr. E. Thomas Satterfield 1985 – 1990

Dr. Richard Conrath 1990 – 1993

Dr. Raymond A. Stone (Interim) 1993 – 1994

Dr. Eric B. McKeithan 1994 – 2012

Dr. G. Frank Sells (Interim) 2012 – 2012

Dr. Ted D. Spring 2012 – 2015

Dr. Amanda Lee 2015 – 2017

Mr. Jim Morton 2018 – Present