ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
Given the lousy farm economy in 1999, having an ?average year? was no small accomplishment for the Hillsboro retail business community.
Local businesses, which depend to varying degrees on the fortunes of farmers, held their own in 1999, according to Cynthia Fleming, who served as president of the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce last year.
?It was an average year from what I?m hearing,? she said. ?I don?t think it was outstanding, but I didn?t hear comments about any significant decline in our businesses.?
Hillsboro?s three car dealers reported steady sales at year?s end. Jan Schroeder, owner of Irv Schroeder County Motors, did say their farm clientele was not as eager to buy new vehicles, but that trend has been developing over several years.
?Farmers are obviously keeping vehicles longer than they used to in the last 10 years,? she said.
Their business has experienced a shift from vehicle sales to service and parts.
?We don?t feel like we are losing a lot of business overall,? she said.
One of the dealerships, Hillsboro Ford, followed the corporate lead and added tire sales and service to its business this year. But both Hillsboro Ford and Wright?s Chrysler-Plymouth said sales held steady in 1999.
Other mainstay Main Street businesses, like Friesen?s Furniture and Goertz Furniture, believe the farm economy has had some impact, even if it?s hard to gauge.
?You know it has an effect, but in our area, you don?t know exactly how much,? said Judy Klein of Goertz Furniture.
Hillsboro?s downtown lineup experienced a few changes in 1999. Hamilton Supply, a provider of dairy and pet supplies, was the only new retail business to open along Main Street.
But four service businesses opened offices in the downtown area: Central States Service and Supply; Rod?s Tire & Service; Doug Weinbrenner?s certified public accounting business; and Kunkel Construction.
Claassen Financial Services renovated, then moved into its new location on North Main. Weinbrenner?s accounting service is now located in Claassen?s former location on South Main.
Getting new businesses on Main Street was a highlight of the past year, said Tracy Isaac, Chamber of Commerce secretary.
?That?s always exciting to have your storefronts on Main Street filled,? she said.
With the opening of Hillsboro Heights, a city-owned light commercial development on the city?s northwest side, some wonder about the future of the downtown business district.
Fleming, however, isn?t one of those people. ?At this point, I think anything that brings people to town is a positive for the town,? she said.
?(Hillsboro Heights) will bring people to town, and they?re not going to get everything that they want out there. So if we can get them that close, then they?ll come downtown.
?To roll over and say, ?Oh my gosh, Hillsboro Heights, let?s close up Main Street,? is totally wrong,? she added. ?I think the addition of Alco several years ago helped bring people to Marion County and to Hillsboro. And they didn?t just shop Alco. They also came downtown.
?I think we?ve got some very wonderful stores that are doing very well in their promotions and I don?t expect that to go away.?
Convincing local consumers of the necessity of supporting hometown business will be an ongoing challenge in Hillsboro and other communities, Fleming said.
The recent emergence of Internet sales raises a whole new agenda for local retailers.
?I don?t know how possible it is, but I think our businesses are going to have to make use of the Internet in order to stay active,? Fleming said. ?I think that?s true of almost any business because I think the Internet is here to stay. I don?t necessarily know how to tell people to do that, but I do think it?s an avenue they may want to pursue.
?But there?s always going to be a need for a store,? she added, ?where somebody can go in and touch it and feel it and see it. I do think we have to stay current and look for new avenues, too.?
Fleming felt the local Chamber organization had a good year promoting the city and its retail community.
Downtown promotions were largely successful, she said. Some are annual events, such as the hot dog giveaway on the first day of the county fair and ?Trick or Treat Main Street.?
At least two were new: ?Tabor College Downtown,? which treated Tabor students to food and a concert in September, and ?The 12 Hours of Christmas? promotion during the holiday season.
?Our Promotions Committee has done well in promoting downtown activities,? Fleming said.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the year, said Fleming, was a Y2K meeting in which area institutions and critical businesses talked about their strategies for addressing potential computer problems when the calendar turned to 2000.
?That was very well attended,? she said.
Another accomplishment was issuing more than $10,000 in gift certificates to local businesses during the holiday season.
?That was very positive,? she said.
The Chamber continued sponsoring ?Roundtable Discussions? with community leaders, and also its ?Breakfast with the Mayor? events in 1999.
Chamber membership remained stable over 1999, she said. Fleming is hoping to see even more activity and cooperation among members in the year ahead.
?I just think we need to continue to promote the Chamber,? she said. ?I think the Chamber is vital to the community. I really wish business people, and town people in general, would pass on their ideas and suggestions for improvement. We are the Chamber for the town and we need those suggestions.?