Drew Hastings lived up to his billing as “the most unlikely farmer and mayor you’ve ever met” Thursday morning by delighting a large crowd inside the Mahan Building at the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce’s fifth-annual Groundhog Day Breakfast.
The City of Hillsboro mayor has been a well-known stand-up comedian for 20-plus years with comedy specials, “The Tonight Show” appearances and as a regular on the popular “Bob & Tom” radio show. Once a loft-living, city dweller, Hastings left Los Angeles at the age of 50 to take up farming in rural Ohio, where he has a cow/calf operation. As mayor, he was re-elected to his second term in 2015.
Hastings exhibited his comedic skills early and often during his keynote speech, and also offered some genuine insight into the challenges that cities such as Hillsboro and Washington C.H. are currently facing, as well as how to confront those challenges.
“Yes, I’m a mayor and a farmer, but anybody who thinks that I actually have farming down pat, I can tell you it was just three months ago that I chased a newborn calf 300 yards across a pasture before I figured out that it was a black Hefty bag blowing across the field,” he said during his opening, which elicited uproarious laughter.
Hastings described in detail how he came to this point in life after leaving Hollywood for the life of a farmer and mayor.
“How did I get here? Well I grew up about 30 to 40 miles from here. But in 2010, I was walking around uptown Hillsboro with a friend. I looked around and I said, ‘Man, who runs this town?’ Hell, I could do better than this. And that ended up being kind of my campaign slogan,” he said. “So I walked around door to door and I just asked people, ‘What are the problems here?’ And they would tell me. Seniors were big supporters of mine from the beginning. They would say, ‘Well young man you seem to cuss a lot, but I’ll vote for you anyway.’ So I ran and I won in a landslide. I don’t consider myself political at all, I was just a ticked off American citizen who just decided to try to do something about it. I try to remember that every single day.”
From that point, Hastings said he took on what he thought were the biggest challenges facing Hillsboro at the time.
“Horrible streets and a sense that the city was quickly deteriorating,” he said. “Also the citizens felt that they had an out-of-control fire department. So I started looking into this. We had a median income in Hillsboro of probably about $32,000. There was a big exposé written before I got into office about how our firefighters made about $100,000 a year. But there was a sense that they didn’t really work for Hillsboro, they worked for a union somewhere and Hillsboro just happened to be where they were stationed. So there was a sense that they weren’t the small town fire department that everybody had grown up with and known.”
Hastings said it was about two years of turbulent and “nasty” times before he could get the problem fixed.
“But in the end we disbanded our fire department and contracted with a fire district, Paint Creek, a large fire district down in our area,” he said. “Overnight we went from having a $1.6 million fire department that took up 36 percent of our entire general fund to one with the fire district, where we started writing a check for $550,000, which was only 12 percent of our general fund. Huge difference. Once that happened, we were saving about a million dollars a year. Now we have more money to do streets and pay attention to other issues.”
The condition and character of Hillsboro’s “uptown” has always been a primary concern for Hastings.
“I think Hillsboro is lucky in that it has a very defined uptown,” he said. “Whatever you call it, your uptown or your downtown, the better that area is defined the better it is for your city. We started doing all kinds of little things uptown and I started to see what works. Most of our shops were empty. It was not conducive to prosperity. So the first thing I did was start offering a facade improvement program. We would tell them that we will fix up the front of your historic building where you are and then give you 50 percent of the money to do it. It slowly started working and it has really made a difference for our uptown. How are you going to brand yourself or identify yourself? I think one of the ways is your uptown or downtown. I think you drive through your uptown or downtown and you kind of take it for granted at times. But if you look at the trend in shopping malls, they’re all built on a quaint, small town look and feel. They want to have a warm and fuzzy small town-feel complete with clocks and fountains. In other words, they are trying to be what we are, which is a small town city center. We just have to recognize that and create that.”
Hastings also stressed the importance of creativity and finding ways to attract younger people to cities like Hillsboro and Washington C.H.
“It’s very important to get your kids coming back,” Hastings said. “Right now your kids don’t want to come back until they’re old enough to put you in assisted living. You want them back when they’ve had a couple kids and they figure out what the world is about…when they’re 28 or 30. Not when they’re 58 and touring facilities with you. I think you have to be really creative now and I think elected officials sometimes tend to cave on things. I think we have a responsibility to represent our communities. When people grow up here, nobody is ever going to come back and get together with old friends and say, ‘Boy, I remember the great times we had out there on the strip by Walmart.’ No, they tend to remember the things that are uptown or downtown because that’s a more permanent place. If you do not plan for your community and define who you are, the rest of the world will define it for you.”
Hastings added, “Every year I’m asked to give a speech in Hillsboro about the state of the city. What is the state of the city? But what I think is more relevant is what is the state of mind of the city. If the state of the city is about concrete and our financial condition and services, then the state of mind of the city is about its people. They are who make or break the city. So the state of the city is a direct result of the state of mind of its people. There’s going to be big changes here in Court House and in Hillsboro. But you can decide what those changes are going to be and how they’re going to be. I think there is a way back to prosperity.”
Chad Gibson, senior planning officer for the City of Upper Arlington and an associated faculty member in the city and regional planning department at The Ohio State University, also spoke at Thursday’s breakfast. Gibson organized a group of 13 OSU graduate students who produced the “enVision Fayette County plan,” the first update to the county’s comprehensive land use plan since its inception in 2006. Look for more on Gibson’s presentation and the enVision Fayette County plan in a future edition of the Record-Herald.
Whitney Gentry, president of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, provided the opening and closing comments, the Fayette County Honor Guard made the presentation of colors, the prayer was given by Fayette Bible Church Pastor Tony Garren, and the breakfast was provided by The Willow Catering. Dan Roberts, former Miami Trace Superintendent and current member of the Fayette County Board of Elections, was revealed as the “celebrity groundhog” at the end of the program.
The groundhog breakfast was created five years ago in order for attendees to learn more about the county’s business and economic forecast while having a little fun as well. Once again this year, McDonald’s of Fayette County served as the corporate sponsor for the event.
Ryan Carter is editor of The (Washington Court House) Record Herald and can be reached at [email protected].