Looking Back at 2019

Mission Health, which operates Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, was purchased by Hospital Corporation of America in 2019.

It’s a new year.

A new decade, in fact. 

And time, to take a look back at 2019 and the stories that grabbed headlines along the way. From the renovation and expansion of the Highlands Performing Arts Center, to the sale of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and the local election, these stories captured the attention of the town over the past 12 months.


Highlands-Cashiers Hospital sold

After months of speculation and skepticism, concerns and reassurances, HCA Healthcare’s $1.5 billion acquisition of Mission Health was finalized on Feb. 1 in a deal that promised to change the healthcare landscape for Western North Carolina.

Mission Health is now an operating division of HCA Healthcare.

In December, representatives from Mission Health named Tom Neal as the new chief executive officer and chief nursing officer at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

Neal was hired in November and officially started in his new role on Dec. 2.

Neal is a 30-year veteran of the healthcare industry, previously serving as CEO of Greenbrier Valley Medical Center in West Virginia and CEO of Berwick Hospital Center in Pennsylvania. Information provided by Mission Health noted that Neal helped rebuild the primary care physician base and led efforts to bring about significant improvements to Berwick Health Center prior to making the move to Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.


Highlands becoming a Smart City

In March of 2019, the Town of Highlands took a major step awarded the fiber optic construction contract for the town’s high-speed internet network to JBL Communications, LLC in the amount of $4.59 million. According to town finance director Rebecca Shuler, the town’s $4.6 million loan with LGC was approved on March 19. JBL submitted the lowest bid.

Highlands Mayor Patrick Taylor said, residents should not have to accept such a blanket statement when it comes to having poor cell-phone and limited or no internet service because they live in the mountains. 

“Having to wait two years for any possibility of improved Internet service is simply not acceptable,” the mayor said. “I want to make Highlands a 1-gigabyte city, and I want to see it happen sooner as opposed to later.”

Contractors have been at work installing fiber optic lines throughout Highlands since September. In 2020, Highlands plans to move highspeed ahead when it comes to fiber optic internet service.


Election changes board

Highlands elected a new board of commissioners during the Nov. 6, 2019 election. A crowded voters’ ballot highlighted the election with a total of seven candidates, including three incumbents running for the three open commissioners seats. 

Political newcomer and longtime town administrator Marc Hehn broke up the status quo by unseating incumbent Eric Pierson to finish second behind incumbent Brian Stiehler and ahead of incumbent John “Buz” Dotson. 

Stiehler, Hehn and Dotson were sworn in by Vic Perry, the Macon County Clerk of Court during the commissioners’ Dec. 12 meeting. 

Pierson was defeated by four votes during the Nov. 6 election, finishing in fourth place behind Stiehler, Hehn and Dotson. 

Taylor praised Pierson for his years of service to the town.

“We do appreciate his service to the community,” the mayor said, who had a plaque prepared to present to Pierson, who did not attend the meeting.

Taylor expressed his congratulations to all our newly elected town commissioners.

“I look forward to working with you.” 


HCHF issues first grants

Representatives from 25 area non-profit organizations filled the clubhouse at Wildcat Cliffs Country Club on in October to receive their grant awards from the Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation’s first grant cycle.

The foundation, which was created following Hospital Corporation of America’s buyout of Mission Health, dispersed more than $1.2 million in funds to causes aimed at improving public health on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau.

“The foundation is investing $488,220 in organizations to improve health and access to healthcare by expanding primary care services, upgrading emergency transportation, increasing access to mental health services and more,” HCHF programs and grants chair Stephanie Edwards said. “The foundation is investing $433,00 in education initiatives that include school-based health, early childhood development and medical training. And the foundation is investing $366,040 in organizations promoting community vitality and economic stability by addressing food poverty, at-risk populations and facility needs.”


Entegra merges with First Citizens

Entegra Financial Corp. shareholders voted in August to approve the Franklin-based company’s acquisition by First Citizens Bank.

As part of the merger, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division required that Entegra divest three branches – two in Macon County. The branch located on Carolina Way in Highlands was one of the divested branches and was sold to Select Bank in December.

Select Bank, headquartered in Dunn, North Carolina, was founded in 2000 and offers a range of retail, small business and commercial banking products and currently services at 18 locations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Completion of the proposed acquisition of Entegra by First Citizens remains subject to the receipt of required regulatory approvals and the satisfaction or waiver of other customary conditions, and is expected to occur during the first quarter of 2020.


PAC expansion begins

The Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts center completed Phase I of its renovation and expansion project in 2019. Phase II is slated for 2020 and will bring a totally new look to the historic PAC building and grounds.

Phase I of the project included grading and landscaping a new larger parking area to accommodate additional guests. Phase II will tackle the expansion and remodel of the PAC building itself to include a new 320-seat theater, a new “Blackbox Theater” for view films and plays, and renovation of the current 200-seat theater.

PAC building chair Cindy Trevathan said she expects shovels to turn on Phase II sometime in January or February and hopes to see the new theater complete by 2022.

“Our new facility will bring the performing arts in Highlands to a higher level by providing a larger theater for the big shows, a small, black box for the movies and more intimate events, plus renovations to the existing hall and expansion of the lobby will improve access, visibility and comfort,” Trevathan said.


Fire station coming soon

The Highlands board of commissioners voted to move forward with building a new fire station in May and purchased the 2.58-acre tract across from the United States Post Office on Franklin Road to house a new facility in June.

Based on drawings displayed by Highlands Fire Chief Ryan Gearhart in November, the new fire station will feature seven pull-through bays for trucks and equipment, office space, sleeping quarters, a kitchen and meeting space. The station will come with all of the bells and whistles being installed at similar facilities across the country, including an exhaust ventilation system, interior wash bay for equipment and command center.

The estimated price tag to build the new station is approximately $4 million. The building will be paid for via a two-cent fire tax increase that was approved as part of the town budget last June.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2020.


Becoming a BearWise Town

Highlands took a giant leap forward to realizing Mayor Patrick Taylor’s longtime goal of becoming North Carolina’s first BearWise town. First to make their appearance in 2019 were the bearproof trashcans now lining Main Street. In addition to the bearproof trashcans, the town ordered more than 300 bearproof toters earmarked for commercial and residential use. 

In February of 2019, the Town of Highlands moved from the discussion phase of the BearWise initiative to active phase of becoming a BearWise town.

With bears into their hibernation period, the town’s goal was to have something in place before the start of the busy summer season. 

B.E.A.R Task Force Committee member Cynthia Strain said she was very encouraged by the town’s Bear Wise initiative. 

“We are all very excited about the Town of Highlands’ initiative to become a Bear Wise Community,” Strain said. 


Food and Wine sells out

The renowned entertainment lineup for this year’s Highlands Food and Wine Festival was reflected in ticket sales. Pre-sale tickets sold at an unprecedented rate, with the Main Event, Sunday Shindig and Weekender passes selling out in just two days. After remaining tickets went on sale to the general public, the other events were quick to follow. 

Near perfect weather greeted guests from all across the Southeast the first weekend in November. Music from Anderson East, The Dip, Nicole Atkins, The Infamous Stringdusters, Shelly Colvin and The Wood Brothers filled the air as the vendors from many of the South’s finest restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries showed off their wares.

The Highlands Food and Wine Festival is presented by Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Old Edwards Inn and Spa each year. Since its inception the event has grown into one of Highlands premiere tourism events and it shows no sign of slowing down.


Water upgrades in place

The new water tank on Satulah Road was filled for the first time in July and the new construction effectively holds more water than the previous tank. The $2.3 million project replaced an existing 200,000-gallon tank with a 600,000-gallon tank.

Town public works director Lamar Nix noted that along with the additional 400,000 gallons of storage capacity, the new tank balances the town’s water storage facilities on opposite ends of the water system. The town has two tanks that total 600,000 gallons of storage capacity on Little Bear Pen Road north of downtown while the Satulah tank is on the south side.

Along with the new water tank, the town board approved $160,000 worth of repairs to a filter at the town’s water treatment plant in April.