The old adage “It takes a Village” couldn’t apply more aptly to the development of our urban village. Many people have shared their time and vision to create the vibrant community that we enjoy today. And a major part of the unifying fabric of that community is Highlands Council.
Highlands Council came to be after the first neighborhoods were built and the IHCA had been established. Judd Kirk, then president of Port Blakely Communities, decided that to fulfill the vision for our urban village there needed to be structures in place to strengthen the social fabric. Port Blakely wanted to build more than a development, they wanted to create a community.
Vicki Stier was hired by Port Blakely Communities in 2002 and served as executive director for both IHCA and Highlands Council. It was her job to help create a seamless transition of governance between the developer and the homeowners and with the help of Chris Hysom, establish the covenants and by-laws for both Highlands Council and the IHCA. Early residents were an active part of this vision and volunteered in large numbers to help shape the future of the Highlands. Vicki organized the volunteers, created committees and hired and trained staff to fill the positions for the IHCA and Highlands Council.
Erick and Renee Zimmerman were one of those early involved families. Erick served first as a board member and then became Board President of the IHCA. He and Renee were instrumental in convincing the school district to provide an elementary school for the growing number of children in our community. Renee was then hired by Port Blakely as executive director of Highlands Council in 2007.
When Paul and I moved to the community in 2006 and began volunteering, we worked closely with Renee as well as with Christy Garrard, who was working as an event planner at the time. We had come at a good time. Blakely Hall was completed and housing our church gatherings, as well as a Mom’s group, Toastmasters, and other community events. There were large scale festivals all year long that our family enjoyed participating in both as attendees and volunteers. From Green Halloween, Easter egg hunts, Purim, Christmas Festival, Hanukkah celebration, and Highlands Day, there was something for everyone and many opportunities for community involvement.
As many long-time residents remember, the recession of 2008-2009 hit us hard. New growth dropped dramatically, and our retail development was put on hold. Just as Highlands Council was gaining momentum as an independent non-profit entity, staff had to be let go and Vicki Stier, who was then VP for Port Blakely Communities, acted as director of the remaining staff. Chanel Merritt continued as communications manager and Michele McFarland as finance manager. Michele is the longest sitting member of Highlands Council and deserves much credit for the financial health of the organization today.
As the economy began to recover, Christy Garrard was rehired by Port Blakely to manage Blakely Hall in the fall of 2010. With very few staff and little money to fund activities, Blakely Hall had become a quiet, dark place. The hours were sporadic and the building saw little use. Christy made it her mission to bring life back into the space and build community spirit again. She turned up the lights, kept regular office hours, and sat visibly at a desk to greet people when they walked in.
She also kept the facility decorated for the seasons and even had an A-board put out front to welcome people in and keep them informed of coming events.
I distinctly remember this change. It was always fun to stop in and say hi to Christy when the kids and I would be out visiting different parks in the neighborhood.
Vicki Stier retired in June of 2012 and Christy moved into the role of Highlands Council General Manager which soon became Executive Director. It was at this time that Christy brought Nina Milligan on board as Communications Manager and Julie Clegg as Creative Coordinator. Between the three of them they’ve made Connections what it is today: themed issues, magazine-like cover, color photos, and articles written for residents by residents. (More on Connections in a future article) Vicki Grunewald joined the team in 2016 as Graphic Design and Digital Marketing Coordinator and has expanded our web presence in order to engage with the community in multiple ways.
As Port Blakely transitioned out of the community, Christy focused on securing our Highland’s identity while at the same time partnering with the City of Issaquah and furthering the council’s involvement with the greater community. Today we host ArtEast events at Blakely Hall, have several highlands residents working for City Council, and are invited to partner with the city on various issues.
Highlands Council makes our community unique by providing a vision, structure, and the resources to be more than just a collection of homes but rather a true governed village within our greater city. At this 20-year mark we celebrate the council members and many more than are mentioned here. It takes all of us, volunteers and visionaries, who through our involvement and hard work have created this village we call home.
Photo: Highlands Council’s three Executive Directors in 2013 (left to right) Renee Zimmerman, Vicki Stier and Christy Garrard (current Executive Director, since 2012).
Special thanks to Chris Hysom, Vicki Stier, Renee Zimmerman, Kelly Bilco, and Christy Garrard who answered all my questions and provided information for this article.