ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
How do you assess the overall health of our community as we begin a new decade? What do you see for us in the next 10 years?
Actually, looking 10 years down the road is almost an impossible task because of the huge changes that are going on. In some ways, it?s even difficult to look five years down the road.
For instance, the changes that are required regarding water and waste water by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are huge challenges.
It?s difficult to know what the requirements are going to be three years from now, much less five or 10 years.
It?s becoming much more difficult to budget for the future and to make a plan for what needs to be done because of so many of those unknowns.
So there?s a lot of uncertainty out there as we enter this decade about what will be required from a municipality in order to keep growing.
Given the uncertainty, how would you assess our readiness to move ahead?
The overall health of our community is very good for a community our size. We have seen some growth, both in the number of people as well as in the business community.
We have more jobs now than I think we?ve ever had before?in spite of the fact that we lost the AMPI plant (in 1998). I think we?re very fortunate that having lost 86 jobs, we haven?t seen any reduction in our population. Those people all found other jobs in the community or within driving distance from here, and have chosen to keep their families in Hillsboro.
The part that was really difficult about the closing was that there was nothing we could really do about it. We couldn?t negotiate it, we couldn?t offer incentives. It was a corporate decision that was made away from here.
As Hillsboro gets more and more businesses with larger corporate identities, that isn?t likely to change either, is it?
That is probably one of the things I see as we go forward as being one of our bigger challenges. As more businesses consolidate, local decisions can?t be made in the same way they were in the past.
I think about our financial community. We have only one bank in town that?s locally owned. The others are all operating as branches of someplace else. That takes away from a lot of the local decision-making and control when it comes to our destiny.
But we?re not alone. All other communities are in the same situation.
From that standpoint, it?s important that we remain a healthy, viable community so that decisions won?t be made that will be contrary to the direction we?re trying to head.
What other challenges do we face as a city?
One of our biggest challenges is to have adequate, clean, safe housing for our residents. We would like to believe that all of our housing is quality. But the reality is we have some substandard housing.
We passed the Neighborhood Revitalization Act last year to encourage the updating of those properties?business properties, too, but housing in particular.
That?s a real challenge as we go forward. With Hillsboro being the age that it is, we have housing stock that is getting quite old and has not been necessarily kept up all the time.
What do you see as the strengths of this community as we enter a new era?
Our strengths are that we have people in this community who care about the future, who are willing to donate their time and effort to make our community a good place to live.
I think we probably donate more toward different causes?be it someone in trouble health-wise, or a recreation program, a drama program, Tabor College, or our churches. I think we are a very giving community.
That?s one of our strengths, that we are not self-centered as individuals. We?re willing to give in time and effort and finances.
In addition to new housing developments, we also have an active industrial park, and now Hillsboro Heights, a light commercial development. What?s the next step for the city?
The next step is to fill it all up. And that?s not finished yet.
At the same time, we need also to not forget our existing businesses, and to help them with their needs as far as expansion, updating equipment, and other things that need to happen. We need to always be mindful of who we have, and not just who we?re getting. We need to show that appreciation to them.
Much of the light commercial businesses are support businesses. From that standpoint, I think they will be a good partnership. But we also need to remember those businesses that are already here and not let them be ignored because of ?bigger and better.?
Do you see some ?diamonds in the rough? that could be developed to strengthen Hillsboro?s economic base?
I don?t know that I would call them diamonds in the rough, but I think what we really need to work on now is our downtown area. We need to help our retail segment achieve what they need to in order to keep going.
We?re very fortunate that we have a lot of young business owners now on Main Street. We?ve seen a large turnover as people retired. Some businesses have gone by the wayside because of that, but I think right now businesses in town have young owners. They need encouragement.
How does that happen?
Again, I think we need to do everything possible to support those businesses. Every time we need something, we shouldn?t jump in the car and run to Wal-Mart or Sam?s to get it. We need to see what?s available right here on Main Street.
Supporting local business can be challenging when large discount stores are 30 minutes away, and now Internet shopping is on the rise. Can our local businesses compete?
I think the retail business community will be fine. They will need to make adjustments, though, as time goes on?just as all businesses do. We can?t do it like we did 10 years or 20 years ago.
At all of the seminars I have attended on economic development, I keep hearing that you need to keep adding more services to your business.
We have two very good examples of that on Main Street right now?Sunflower Office Products and Kitchen Korner, and also Quick Flick Video and Radio Shack. Those are perfect examples of what small businesses need to do to survive.
We need to encourage smaller businesses to look at adding other areas that correspond.
Can local business somehow tap into e-commerce?
A small community, or even a home-based business can work very, very well on the Internet because your customers can be anyplace in the world.
As far as people in Hillsboro using the Internet instead of downtown, I do think that?s happening here in Hillsboro. But in most cases, they?re buying what isn?t necessarily available locally.
With the loss of some businesses in the last 20 years, we?ve got pockets of things that are not available here anymore. Maybe it?s not realistic to think that we could ever have those.
One of the things I hear most often is that we need a shoe store. Well, go to any community?go to Wichita, even?how many shoes stores do you find? They aren?t there anymore either. They have become part of a larger store. It?s the same thing of adding more products to what you already have.
You have to get something that people want and that there?s a need for in the community.
Much of our conversation is based on an assumption that we want to grow as a community. Is that assumption accurate?
There is some division of opinion whether we should continue with growth and whether growth is good for our community. Some wonder whether we?re losing what Hillsboro is all about.
I do think that is probably one of the things that needs to be thought about. What do we want Hillsboro to be?
What do you see as the ?ultimate Hillsboro? in regard to growth?
I don?t know what they ultimate size is for Hillsboro. But in many of the discussions I?ve had with people, it always comes down to that we would like to see 5 to 10 percent growth per year. I really believe that 5 percent would be best, if we could achieve it. That could be done without overly straining the infrastructure that?s here.
When we think about growth, we have to think about the schools, the utilities?everything that it takes to handle more people. Five percent annual growth seems to be the number they see as optimum.
I don?t know at what point you would not want to see that continue, but I do think it?s a good number to shoot for.
That covers population growth, but what about economic growth?
I believe the economy needs to continue to be diversified. Years ago, Our community was totally dependent on agriculture. We still are very dependent on it, but we need to be diversified.
I truly believe this town weathered the AMPI closing better than a lot communities could because we didn?t have all of our eggs in one basket. It?s much better to have several employers with 50 to 80 people than is is to have one employer with a thousand people. If something goes backward, and a huge employer has to cut back or close, then you?re really in trouble.
How are we doing in the area of growing our quality of life?
That?s one of the things we?ve worked on for a long time. One of the things we still need to do is the swimming pool. Having built the sports complex, having a good school system, having the college here?we have a lot of good things going for us.
Quite honestly, we are still within an hour of the larger cities. If you need to go to the ballet or want to see a first-run movie, they?re close enough.
We?ve tried to offer particularly what young people are looking for. But I think we offer a lot for our senior citizens, too. Part of that is programs the college offers, of course, plus the senior center and the good facilities we have for senior citizens, such as as Park Village, Parkside Homes, and the nursing home at the hospital.
Quality of life is something we?ve always worked on and I think we will continue to.
Why is working for growth important for a community like ours?
Growth is good from the standpoint that with our world the way it is, you cannot stand still. If you start standing still and don?t react to what?s going on, more than likely you will go backward.
When businesses look to build something in Hillsboro, one of their first questions is, ?What has your growth been over the last 10 years?? If you say it?s stagnant, they?re down the road pretty fast.
So growth is important. But in order to have growth, you have to have the business community. And in order to have the business community, you have to have the people.
Is there a down side to growth?
The downside, of course, is diversity and the extra costs that are included in having to furnish basic services as the town expands.
Lots of times there?s a fear that growth is going to bring the wrong kinds of people to town. That?s not necessarily so. If people would look at what has happened in our business community, and with the jobs in Hillsboro, I think they would be pleasantly surprised with who has moved here.
Our growth has been very, very positive. If we can take care of some of our dilapidated housing, I think that can continue. However, I think if you have substandard housing available, it usually attracts substandard people.
Growth can be good as long as we prepare for it and take care of what we have.
How do we stack up to other small, rural communities when it comes to facing the challenges of the future?
Hillsboro is kind of the envy of a lot of people around the state. They talk about the new housing areas, the industrial park, the Hillsboro Heights area, and also that we have been able to maintain our Main Street.
But we also face some of the same challenges other rural communities face, right? Health care comes to mind.
Health care needs to be talked about as one of our biggest challenges. I think Hillsboro knows how important health care is, and that?s why we took the steps to refinance the hospital so it could get to the point where it could stand naturally on its own feet.
I do think people in Hillsboro need to realize how important it is to have local health care. And they need to keep that in mind when they choose their own health-care providers.
The day will come when each of us will probably need that emergency room. If we drive out of town for health care all of the time, and we don?t use what?s local until we?re in crisis, it might not be there.
A hospital is so important to a community our size. If we lost ours, I believe Hillsboro would be on a downward spiral very quickly.
I meet a lot of the new people when the come to town. One of the things they always ask about is physicians and hospital care. It is such an important piece.
Some people say we don?t need a hospital here. But if we didn?t have the hospital, we wouldn?t have the good nursing homes that we do because people wouldn?t bring their parents to stay in a place that didn?t have adequate services.
If we didn?t have a hospital, we wouldn?t have physicians, either. Granted they could have privileges to put patients in other places, but that isn?t a good solution if you?re talking about having to drive people 30 miles.
Having the facility here is extremely important. But health care is changing just like everything else is. It can?t be done like it was done 20 years ago. You have to look at alternatives. It?s just a difficult time to keep up with everything.
One alternative has been exploring closer cooperation with St. Luke Hospital in Marion. Is this kind of inter-community cooperation likely to increase in the future?
I do think we?re working together with other communities in Marion County much better than we ever have in the past. We?re sharing different facilities, and sharing ideas.
We?ve been having the mayors meetings on a regular basis since last summer. All the mayors who are interested get together regularly to share information.
I think it?s important that we work together like that. We need to partnership all along the way.