It was an unusually hot spring day when Joey Cochran drove his electric car along the dirt path that winds behind UNC Charlotte’s Facilities Management Main Building.
As he maneuvered through the trail, a dusty plume followed, past the brand new streetlights resting on the grass like logs in a woodpile, around the stacks of decorative river rock and along the rows of young trees bound in burlap sacks.
When he came to a small field of flats filled with flowers as vivid as a painter’s palette, he took his foot off the pedal and coasted to a stop in the middle of the property.
“Everything behind this building is affectionately referred to as The Compound,” he said, looking over the grounds. “All of this is subject to change out here pretty quickly.”
In its move toward creating a more sustainable environment, the university has big changes in the works, and Cochran, the grounds superintendent, is champing at the bit to get ready.
“The university’s really taking a lot of steps forward for developing a sustainability plan,” he said. “It’s one of the things, from our end, that’s a high priority in making it work.”
The changes will include more composting, including campus food waste; more recycling; and eventually, the ability to provide all the plant material the campus needs on its own.
In a box on the compound a 60-by-40-foot greenhouse waits to be assembled.
Right now the university relies on local vendors within a 100-mile radius to provide the trees, shrubs and flowers it needs. It’s no small number. Last year the campus planted 2,300 trees and shrubs alone and used 20 to 30 tractor-trailer loads of mulch.
“It’ll save the university a lot of money,” said Cochran.
But not everything will happen overnight. Like water from an old stiff faucet, funds for the projects drip out sparingly.
In the meantime, there’s still plenty to do. The grounds are always changing. It’s the nature of the business. And for the past eight years, Cochran has managed it all.
He knows every tree, shrub and pansy on the 525 acres of developed land on the campus. He can tell you why a mound of sand sits outside the baseball field right now. Or why sometimes he has to send a guy out to weed the artificial grass on the soccer field.
He can even tell you the most common item left in the pan of the bronze 49er gold miner statue outside Reese administration building: rocks spray-painted to look like gold nuggets.
“That makes us laugh,” he said.
From picking up trash to planting thousands of flowers, the grounds department is tasked with keeping the campus, neat, stunning and welcoming.
That means plucking every weed, picking up every cigarette butt and dutifully brushing the artificial turf on the playing fields each week.
Those who have been around awhile have seen the campus layout change drastically over the years. You can tell how long someone has lived in the area based on his earliest memory of the campus surroundings.
The old-timers will tell you the UNC Charlotte campus used to be a dairy farm. Those who came along later will talk of the time the campus was covered with blacktop parking lots.
Back then, there wasn’t much need for a large groundskeeping crew.
Years ago, 10 people managed the grounds on campus. Today, Cochran has a crew of 38, many of whom have been with the department for decades. That’s one thing that doesn’t seem to change. But the rest, he said, never stays the same, and he doesn’t expect it ever will.
“If you didn’t have so many landmark locations, you wouldn’t think you were in the same place,” he said.