It’s about time to make New Year’s resolutions, isn’t it?
I got an early start on my resolutions this year. My big resolution for 2020 is to shop at local and independent stores as much as I can, so at the beginning of December, I drove to Columbus’s bookstore, The Book Loft, to buy some books for a new project and pick up a few Christmas presents. Columbus is local, right?
That’s the struggle around here, though, isn’t it? I’ve seen people from surrounding counties always seem to pick on Highland County in the Facebook comments of articles I post for The Times-Gazette. They always comment that Hillsboro doesn’t have a “decent restaurant.” And when the developers working to bring the Marriott to Hillsboro had their presentation last week, they said we need clothing stores, restaurants, and places for people to stay.
The part of me that’s still pining for the variety I had access to while I was in college and living near Cleveland and Akron—that part emphatically agrees. I’d love some of the bougie, locally owned concept restaurants that bigger cities have. I’d love to transplant the parts that I loved about Cleveland and Akron into Highland County soil.
But then I think of the culture and the people here. While I’m sure some people have similar tastes that I do, I’ve always gotten the sense that the general Highland County mentality is something along the lines of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” We have a strong community here, and local entrepreneurs have minds capable of producing incredible products and experiences.
However, sometimes people do look down on Highland County and its residents.
Highland County is technically considered part of the Appalachian region—maps place us on the Appalachian Plateau, which is really on the fringes of the region. Go down SR 73, into Clinton County, and you’re no longer in Appalachian Ohio.
The Appalachian region has been targeted by writers like J.D. Vance, who wrote the bestseller called “Hillbilly Elegy,” a book criticized by other Appalachian writers and residents. An employee at The Book Loft in Columbus, who grew up in Kentucky, told me that Vance wrote “Hillbilly Elegy” like “he was the only smart person in Appalachia.” This employee said that Vance’s book portrayed people from Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio as “poor, dumb rednecks.”
People from Highland County and other counties that fall under the Appalachian Ohio umbrella have been called similar names and worse, I’m sure.
But when The Associated Press wrote a followup article regarding marijuana operations found on the Pike County properties where eight members of the Rhoden family were murdered in 2016, AP said, “Extensive marijuana-growing operations are not uncommon in sparsely populated rural southern Ohio, an economically distressed corner of Appalachia.”
You know what else is not uncommon in rural southern Ohio? Corn, cows, and people doing their best.
I’m not saying the AP’s statement was wrong—it was just very sobering to read about the area where I grew up in that way. Sure, people were trying to make sense of a tragedy, and I’ve heard some were trying to connect the Rhoden murders to a Mexican cartel, but jeez, man. It almost felt like they were saying, “Rural southern Ohio is a lawless land where only a handful of people live, and we all grow marijuana.” When I read that article, I felt like a Who in “Horton Hears a Who”: “we are here, we are here, we are here! And we don’t all grow weed illegally!”
So when people like the developers from Michigan who are working on the hotel project visit, I imagine that these are the things they’ve heard about us, if anything.
I get that the hotel has been in the works for a while. The Times-Gazette reported back in 2016 that Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings was bringing people in to run a feasibility study to see if there was a need for a hotel, and I guess there is. But last Friday, when the developers were talking about the places they want to include in the hotel and connected retail plaza, they were mentioning places like Starbucks and Panera Bread. And they want to bring a Buffalo Wild Wings-style sports bar to Hillsboro. The part of me that misses northeastern Ohio was jazzed.
But there is a fine line between bringing a town some things it could use and gentrification.
Hillsboro already has a coffee shop and two sports-bar type restaurants, and they’re all locally owned, which is incredible.
But one of the developers said they were considering chains like Starbucks and Panera because he thought people around here haven’t had the chance to experience those places, which is fair. Not everyone has access to transportation, and the nearest free-standing Starbucks (a Starbucks that isn’t located in a Kroger) is in Jeffersonville; the nearest Panera is in Chillicothe.
But people who have spoken with me privately about the hotel and retail plaza have pointed out that there are plenty of empty business spaces available throughout Hillsboro, though, that could certainly house a Starbucks. Why does the retail plaza next to the hotel have to be the place for a Starbucks or a Panera?
People who travel seem more likely to stick around their hotels. I know I do. If we put a bunch of familiar chain restaurants in the hotel plaza, the people who do stay at the hotel in Hillsboro because they now have a “luxury” option probably won’t stray too far from the hotel.
There was a similar situation in the relatively small northeastern Ohio town where I went to college: the part of town where my university was located was full of chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Chipotle and Starbucks, and students and their families rarely adventured deeper into the actual town. There was a clear divide between “townies” and students.
Now that the wheels are turning on Hillsboro’s hotel project—the developers expect to break ground in the first quarter of 2020—we need to start thinking about what this is going to mean for those of us who actually live in Highland County.
Brands like Starbucks are like modern colonialists: they’re conquering the world one 2,000-square-foot slice of commercial property at a time. According to Statista, there are 31,256 Starbucks stores around the world as of 2019. Do we really need a Starbucks here too?
I mean, I like Starbucks as much as the next 20-something, but a trip to Starbucks isn’t a unique experience. In my opinion, local businesses are the things that make cities like Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati cool places to be, places where people want to visit and spend their money.
The developers have said they’re open to leasing space in the retail plaza to local businesses. Let’s hold them to it.
Contact developer Ankur Patel about leasing space in the business plaza at [email protected] They want to have leasers in place before construction begins, so reach out as soon as you can.
McKenzie Caldwell is a news reporter at The Times-Gazette. She can be reached at 937-402-2570 or [email protected]