HCH pitches employee housing project to town board

  • HCH officials are considering construction of an employee housing complex.
    HCH officials are considering construction of an employee housing complex.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital president Tom Neal presented a unique proposal to the town board of commissioners during their Aug. 20 meeting.

As a way to help recruit new employees to work at the hospital, parent company Hospital Corporation of America would like to build new employee housing on the current HCH grounds, but they need the town’s approval to do it.

“This project is something that is only in the planning stages, and is still a long way in the future,” Neal said. “But as we move forward, one of the first things that we need to have in place is town approval for water and sewer connections for the residential units.”

Neal explained that the planned employee housing would be located near the intersection of US64 and Buck Creek Road on land that the hospital already owns. A traffic study and other approvals from Macon County, since the land is not in town limits, would be completed before any site work begins.

The cost of living in Highlands and Cashiers has proved to be a big obstacle to hiring employees at HCH, according to Neal.

“Highlands is a beautiful place, and the kind of place that everyone would love to live in, but the median home price is $450,000 and that simply isn’t feasible for many working people,” Neal said. “We polled our staff and found out that 38 percent of our employees commute more than 25 miles one way to get to work. We asked people who left the hospital to take other jobs why they were leaving, and 77 percent sited the cost of living or the long commute.”

Neal added that the cost of living associated with employment at HCH is too high for hourly workers in particular.

“The Eckerd Living Center is one of the premier assisted living facilities in the region, and right now we are operating about 60 beds,” Neal said. “That facility has capacity for as many as 80 residents, but we need nursing assistants, janitorial staff, kitchen staff, etc. to allow for the Eckerd Center to reach its full potential.”

The proposed employee housing development includes one, two and three bedroom residential condominiums built in a cul de sac. Neal added that the proposed living quarters for employees would also include a daycare facility and some form of playground or outdoor recreation space.

Commissioner Amy Patterson asked if the hospital had considered retrofitting some of its currently unused space into residential apartments. The Jane Woodruff Building in particular is underutilized, according to Patterson.

“We did look at that, but the Woodruff Building was meant to be a medical office facility, and we do have plans for that space,” Neal said. “He noted that the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation is partnering with Blue Ridge Health to start a primary care clinic that is going to utilize some of the space and that Pisgah Legal Services has agreed to lease an office in the Woodruff Building as well.”

Neal added that HCA has also looked at possibly restarting orthopedics at the hospital and would need space for an orthopedic surgeon to have an office on site if that service is ever reinstated.

Commissioner John ‘Buz’ Dotson voiced concerns about the hospital getting into the landlord business and renting out space to outside organizations.

“This proposal sounds good, but we have seen before that plans don’t always go the way they are laid out,” Dotson said. “It seems odd to me that the hospital would want to build a bunch of new buildings on site when they have empty space already. I think we really need to be sure we as a town have all the specifics ironed out before we approve anything.”

Neal noted that the new employee housing units would be managed by a third party property management company and not the hospital directly. 

The board took no action regarding the proposal but agreed to discuss the item at a future meeting when more details became available.