Creating a comprehensive plan this coming year that addresses sustainability issues should be a top priority. I support hiring a professional consulting company to guide the planning board, town staff, and community stakeholders through this effort; a process that will shape a community vision as a guide for future decisions.
I am aware we live in a rapidly changing, unpredictable world. Longterm planning may not be possible, but strategic planning to respond to unanticipated events and rapid change is needed. To folks who say they just want to keep Highlands the way it has always been, my response is that’s not going to happen. And how exactly has it always been? In the not too distant future, major changes beyond our control will impact Highlands. As a community we need to have the mechanisms in place to respond.
The challenge will be to sustain and protect this beautiful natural environment, yet also create an economy that can support the needs of residents. The paradox is that the more we want to build and develop as a means of expanding economic prosperity, the more we risk changing the social and natural environment. How many people can Highlands accommodate and still preserve this spectacular environment?
We may see glimpses of this dynamic already in play. On Black Friday the business district was completely full with no parking spaces available. What action should be taken? Build a huge parking garage like the ones in major cities? If so, how do we address resulting capacity issues? Already on Black Friday our rather small sidewalks were full too. Do we expand existent spaces and infrastructure in order to have more and more people here? And, what will be the nature of retail stores a decade from now? Already some retail merchants have adopted the tactic of promoting products to potential customers who are simply walking down the sidewalks.
Other growth and change issues face Highlands. How will we meet energy demands, especially if the town expands? What form of energy will Highlands use by the end of the decade when the contract with Duke Energy is renegotiated, or will there be other options? How will the town and county manage solid waste disposal and recycling? How will we address workforce issues and related housing concerns? Or, will artificial intelligence and robotics change the entire dynamic of work and labor as we know it today? Please don’t tell me that is wild speculation, it isn’t. These changes and potential displacements are close at hand.
I look at the current concerns about healthcare and suspect a decade from now there will be major changes in medicine that we didn’t see coming. Our fiber optic network could play a key role in delivering new services. The Washington Post just ran a story of remote, experimental cyber surgery being done in rural hospitals. Imagine an appendectomy being done at the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital with a surgeon operating from Asheville.
So, as we start a new year, I believe it is imperative that we look toward the future. And by that I mean what lies ahead in just a few years, not just thirty years down. The future has accelerated.
Today, incoming commissioner Marc Hehn and I are in the Essentials of Local Government class that is put on by the North Carolina School of Government.
- Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor