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Tabor lauded, downtown troubles noted in report

First Impressions visitors report observations

Staff writer

Visitors to Hillsboro found several businesses they liked and vibrant landscaping — but first they had to find how to get downtown.

“To be completely honest, we felt confused where to turn in to get to the center of Hillsboro to find Main St.,” one group of visitors wrote. “There seemed to be several turns off the highway and none of them seemed to be prominent enough to build our confidence which would take us there.”

The anonymous visitors from Council Grove came in two groups in August and September to record their observations of Hillsboro as part of First Impressions, a K-State Research and Extension program intended to help small towns.

The research is directed through K-State Research and Extension, but it is up to the community and city officials — including newly-elected mayor Lou Thurston — to determine what is done with the report.

One group accidentally found downtown after driving through other parts of town.

“It was unclear where to turn to find the main retail business district, so could maybe use better signage for downtown,” they wrote. “The signage that we saw was a little bit redundant, almost too many for just certain destinations like the sports complex.”

Once the visitors found downtown, they found clean streets and generally well-kept buildings.

Vacant buildings

They noticed some obvious vacancies, but they included signs for listing agents, advertising, and for-rent, which they said is important.

“If a prospective entrepreneur happens to roll through town, it is important for them to know what is available and who to call,” they wrote.

The other group, while saying the Main St. buildings were well-maintained, looked at the vacancies in a different light.

“The downtown looked a bit like it was struggling to us,” they wrote. “It seemed that there were quite a few vacancies and that the traffic was light, even over lunch time. Although there were a couple of nice shops, there wasn’t too much of a variety as far as shopping goes.”

One group wrote they enjoyed the inventory and displays at Odds and Ends, but “a store of that quality should occupy a store front building” downtown with a less awkward feel.

They also lauded Norel Farms Bakery.

“One great experience for us was at Norel Bakery when the owner asked if it was our first visit and she said, ‘Let me give you an education,’ and explained all the treats in the freezer,” they wrote. “The doughnuts were amazing — best we have ever had.”

However, neither group said any one shop or restaurant would take them out of their way to visit Hillsboro, even though they were good.

“The stores we enjoyed most seemed to be new to Hillsboro, and seemed to be still setting up merchandise they were making,” one group wrote.

Drawing people

The Marion Reservoir, Arts and Crafts Fair, and a renovated Mennonite Settlement Museum were noted as good ways to draw people to the community.

Both groups visited Hillsboro a few weeks before the Arts and Crafts Fair in September. One noted that advertisements for the event claim it brings in 40,000 people, but said people they talked to made it sound more like 10,000.

“A struggle for towns is to offer consistent information about things within its own community,” they wrote. “The best advocates for the town are the people who live there. Figuring out a way to unite their perception and the way to talk about Hillsboro would be an incredible achievement.”

Both groups wrote about good customer service and friendly, helpful employees at businesses and the Chamber of Commerce office.

“Overall great customer service,” they wrote about businesses greeting them when they entered. “Everyone was so friendly, it was like they knew we were from out of town and doing the First Impressions program and were extra friendly.”

Lack of dining options

Both groups noted a lack of plentiful lunch location, one opting for Mexican and the other for Wendy’s. One of the groups said downtown would benefit from a café or soda fountain.

“People like to eat,” they wrote. “Need more options for dining.”

Neither group said they could find public restrooms or water fountains. One group said they eventually left downtown for that very reason.

Both groups said Hillsboro appeared to have strong schools, and were especially impressed with Tabor College and its landscaping.

“We slammed our brakes (when we saw a sign for Java Jay’s),” a person wrote. “Once we stopped at Tabor for coffee, we walked briefly around the campus and didn’t want to leave. It was challenging to want to go to other places since it was so beautiful on campus. The landscaping at Tabor was incredible. Having that college is a huge asset to Hillsboro.”

While the coffee was good, they were otherwise disappointed.

“I get the feeling it is more for people on campus as parking and walking in to get a coffee on a daily or even weekly basis probably won’t happen for a local person,” they wrote. “There was a pretty good sized line and it wasn’t extremely quick. We did see there was a coffee shop listed on the city’s website, though it must have closed since then.”

The other group also visited Java Jay’s for coffee on a Thursday morning, only to find it closed.

Industrial park

One group said they found information on Hillsboro Development Corporation online before visiting town. Both noted the industrial park area has room for Hillsboro to grow. One group also noted many vacancies in the industrial park area.

“Those vacancies could be a great asset for the right tenant, or a huge eyesore for a long time,” they wrote. “Actively pursuing the right tenants would be advantageous.”

The other group noted that having infrastructure already in place is important for new businesses.

“This is a big asset because so many times the timeline is short for new industries inquiring about assets that are ready and available,” they wrote.

Food shopping

One group suggested that Dale’s Supermarket move to a vacated building near the highway — a move that the grocery store has planned to make.

“We felt there is a history with Dale’s Supermarket that we really appreciate, but sometimes for a town to grow, certain things need to be looked at, given new breath, and allowed to grow,” they wrote.

The other group said they did not visit Dale’s.

“Several girls we visited with told us that the best place for groceries was Dollar General with a great variety of groceries,” they wrote.

Both groups said both the old and new hospitals appeared to be in operation. They said the new hospital location seemed strange, but it would make sense if there were plans to make the area a medical park.

One group called the police building dilapidated, and the other said it looked abandoned.

One group suggested Hillsboro pursue a variety of options and types of places to stay when visiting.

Both groups noted good housing options with new construction, but limited rental properties.

Both groups theorized that rentals are few because of Tabor students. One said it seemed like people need to be “in the know” for when rentals become available.

City website

Both groups visited the city’s website before stepping foot in town. They said it was easy to use and informative, but some of the information appeared to be several years out of date, citing closed businesses still listed and a saying Walmart Pharmacy was “coming soon” when it has already come and gone.

That group also found a video on the website promoting moving to Hillsboro, which they said was a good idea that needs improvement. The video should showcase more diversity and feel less like a corporate training video in less time, they wrote, and not end with a closed business.

The other group praised the website’s simplicity.

“While somewhat generic, it was positive and offered good information,” they wrote. “While my daughter thought it could use some modernization, I being older, like the simplicity of use.”

No Catholic church

Both groups noticed a dominance of Mennonite churches and involvement with the community as well as other denominations, with one exception: Catholics.

“This is the type of thing that would have hindered us from moving to Hillsboro,” one group said.

They suggested adding surrounding towns’ churches to the Hillsboro website, noting that both Marion and McPherson have Catholic churches.

“We realize while in certain circumstances we are ‘competing’ with surrounding areas or towns, those same towns can also greatly benefit what a community has to offer,” they wrote. “And if a nice family moved to town, but goes to church in Marion, that is a win for Hillsboro.”

Last modified Nov. 15, 2017

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