By Jesse Wood
Feb. 12, 2014. Following a public hearing featuring several community members, the Blowing Rock Town Council, in a 3-1 vote, approved a request from Appalachian Regional Healthcare System “provide an economic incentive” and cover water and sewer line extension costs for the proposed post-acute care facility on U.S. 321 in town.
Councilman Dan Phillips provided the lone nay vote, and Councilman Doug Matheson recused himself from the discussion and vote because his wife is employed by the ARHS.
While ARHS requested $250,340 – the estimated cost provided by N.C. Department of Transportation to construct the extended the water and sewer lines – from the town, the council settled on $150,000. After public comment was closed, Councilman Ray Pickett opened the discussion and quickly made a motion for $150,000 as opposed to $250,340. This motion was followed by a second from Councilwoman Sue Sweeting.
(In June 2013, ARHS requested $150,000 from the Watauga County Board of Commissioners for the same request, to cover infrastructure costs. With Blowing Rock Mayor J.B. Lawrence and members of the Watauga County Economic Development Committee in attendance to support the request, the commissioners denied the request in a 3-2 vote.)
Before moving to a vote on Tuesday, however, Phillips – after stating that he has supported this project from Day 1 – went off on a tangent as to why he wouldn’t be voting alongside his peers to fund ARHS infrastructure costs.
Phillips started off by saying that he found it “disturbing when Well-Spring left” and ARHS purchased an additional 24 acres with the potential for selling and developing that property bordering U.S. 321.
(In the summer 2012, ARHS announced that the Greensboro-based Well-Spring retirement community would no longer partner with Appalachian Place at Chestnut Ridge, the name of the proposed post-acute care facility in Blowing Rock because “the appropriate level of operational and financial integration necessary to sustain a continuing care retirement community cannot be achieved under certain circumstances.”)
Phillips also mentioned that he was bothered by discussions of ARHS, a nonprofit, selling property that was annexed by the town for the post-acute care facility. ARHS-owned land in Blowing Rock consists of two parcels annexed by the town: a main parcel “on the top,” 43.4 acres in size, annexed in 2011; and the “lower parcel,” 23.8 acres in size that was annexed in 2012 and borders the highway.
“That bothered me. Sitting there, I was thinking, ‘Hold on. Is this all a part of the medical facility and wouldn’t selling off the lower portion change the nonprofit status?’” Phillips asked, adding that he is still clueless as to how this property is going to be developed.
Before Blowing Rock Town Council unanimously approved of the annex of the lower parcel in 2012, Phillips stated his concern for the possibility of ARHS selling the land for a fast-food joint or chain pharmacy. At that 2012 meeting, Phillips asked what ARHS intended to do with the property.
“Well, the reason we purchased the property was to gain a sufficient right away,” an ARHS representative answered. “The 30-foot right away we currently have is not sufficient. It does have potential for development. We did pay $1.5 million for the property, and we hope to recover the return on our investment.”
At the meeting on Tuesday, Phillips reiterated those concerns.
As for the matter at hand – the water and sewer extension request, Philips said agreeing to pay $150,000 or $250,000 would set a major precedent, leading other organizations, businesses and nonprofits to make similar infrastructure requests that would then lead to the spending of more tax dollars.
“We are doing something I don’t know has ever been done before,” Phillips said.
Councilman Albert Yount said he was on the fence regarding this project until he talked with a man who mentioned that – once this healthcare community is complete – he wouldn’t have to send his parents off the mountain for care and kin wouldn’t leave Blowing Rock to visit older relatives.
“So I make exception to my great rule of keeping government and private enterprise apart, and I’ll support this motion,” Yount said.
Sweeting wanted it noted that in addition to the $150,000 it was about to approve of at Tuesday’s meeting, that the Town of Blowing Rock has already supported the ARHS to the tune of $1.3 million in the form of cash, waived fees, labor and grant monies.
Although he didn’t vote, Mayor J.B. Lawrence said he saw “far greater upside” than “temporary downsides” he was hearing from either Phillips or the one public commenter that urged the council to turn this request down.
While former Councilman Jim Steele, ARHS Board of Trustee member Keith Tester, Chetola owner Kent Tarbutton, Chelsea Garrett on behalf of Blowing Rock Chamber, and ARHS representative Jerry Hutchins spoke in favor of the project, a retired employee of the town urged the council to spend the money requested by ARHS on infrastructure improvements within the town.
“In 30 years of service [with the town] I never saw a request of an extension for water and sewer lines for free,” Johnny Lynch, retired public works director, said adding that the $250,000 requested is $30,000 less than the entire field operations budget of the public works department.
Those that spoke for the $25-million project, however, mentioned the economic development and the increased revenue from an expanded tax base and connection fees; the added jobs (up to 160) in the community; and the ability to grow old in Blowing Rock.