The Highlands Board of Commissioners hit the collective pause button on a potential employee housing development adjacent to Highlands-Cashiers Hospital on Thursday night.
Following a pointed discussion, commissioner Marc Hehn asked mayor Patrick Taylor to appoint a subcommittee to study the development, and an agreement with Hospital Corporation of America, further.
HCH President and CEO Tom Neal pitched the idea of building a 16-unit employee housing complex on land already owned by the hospital near the intersection of US64 and Buck Creek Road during the board’s August meeting. In order for the project to happen, HCA needs town approval for water and sewer connections.
“When you look at our workforce, 38 percent of our employees drive more than 25 miles to get to work,” Neal said. “When we have people leave, they always point to the long commute and/or the incredibly high cost of living as the reason. The average cost of a home in Highlands is $450,000, and that simply is outside many working people’s price range.”
The HCA site plan calls for 16 rental units, ranging from one to three bedrooms, to be built on site along with a daycare facility.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Mark Chmar asked the leadership of HCA to consider other employee recruiting alternatives. Chmar cited the logistical impact of building a large housing complex at an already congested site.
“Putting a high-density apartment complex near one of the most dangerous intersections in Macon County is not a good idea,” Chmar said. “The intersection of US 64 and Buck Creek Road is a blind turn in both directions, and it really doesn’t make sense when the property in question already has access from the hospital, which has a dedicated entrance.”
Chmar suggested HCA look into paying an employee housing stipend for employees willing to live within 11 miles of the facility, rather than develop the proposed lot by building apartments.
Dr. Patti Wheeler spoke in favor of the development and noted that a similar housing project was in the master plan when the hospital was built in 2001.
“This project is not something that came out of the blue and is being thrown together,” Wheeler said. “In the 2001 document that the town approved prior to the hospital being built, it calls for employee housing on site.”
Commissioner Amy Patterson pointed to the Chestnut Hill development as a reason for the town to be skeptical of HCA’s intentions. The Chestnut Hill condominiums are within a mile of the hospital and received a similar concession from the town to provide water and sewer services when they were constructed, with the goal being to provide employee housing.
When the previous parent company of the hospital found itself in a tough financial position, Chestnut Hill was sold off and is no longer used for employee housing.
“I am not necessarily against this type of project, but I am not going to vote for it unless we have some sort of agreement with HCA in writing that says the complex will forever be tied to employee housing at the hospital,” Patterson said. “While HCA’s plan may sound great, who’s to say in 20 years, or 10 years, or even five years, that they won’t be in a tough financial spot and they try to make a quick buck by selling the housing complex?”
Neal noted that if HCA wanted to make money off the property that the company could just sell the land, which it already owns, to a developer. He added that HCA has spent $5 million since purchasing the hospital on technology upgrades.
“HCA is committed to seeing the hospital succeed and be profitable, while serving the community,” Neal said. “We want to be able to add services and expand the Eckerd Living Center, but to do that we need employees.”
Commissioner Donnie Calloway asked the board to consider the repercussions of allowing such a development as it relates to HCA as one specific employer.
“This board is aware of another large employer in Highlands that is looking at a similar employee housing project, which would need similar utility connections,” Calloway said. “If we allow this for the hospital and we hook them up to the water and sewer outside of town limits, then how can we say no when the next request comes in? And I’m certain more requests will come in.”
Hehn requested Taylor appoint a committee to look into the project with greater attention to detail and report back to the full board at a later meeting. Taylor agreed and a motion to form a subcommittee passed unanimously.