Hillsboro, Kansas, population just under 3,000, is the largest city in Marion County by about a thousand people. And it’s been roughly the same size for approaching half a century. As of the 2010 census, one in five residents of Hillsboro are age 65 or older (the Kansas average is less than one in seven). A drive down Hillsboro’s relatively quiet Main Street will reveal several vacant businesses interspersed among various restaurants, stores, and shops. And yet Hillsboro is also home to a decent industrial park, four major construction projects, and a vibrant college. So is Hillsboro’s steady size a sign of stability or stagnancy? What dynamics are at work behind the numbers?

The Friesen Dutch Windmill, an image of Hillsboro’s heritage.

First, a look at where Hillsboro has come from: it was originally a trade center for farmers, brainchild of its namesake John Gillespie Hill. Hillsboro’s largest influx of residents came during the “mass exodus” of Mennonites, as it is dubbed by Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies (based at Tabor College in Hillsboro). In the decade between 1874 and 1884, some 15,000 to 18,000 Mennonites of German heritage (but at the time living in Russia) moved to the plains ranging from Manitoba to Kansas, including the new and tiny city of Hillsboro. For the next hundred years, Hillsboro would see nothing but growth, with one significant lull in this growth during the World Wars, when “there was a small trend to leave [for Canada], because the Mennonites did not want to carry arms.”

Tabor College, a part of Hillsboro for over 100 years

In 1908, Hillsboro became the home of Tabor College, the center for higher education for the Mennonite Brethren church. “The desire to provide a quality higher education with a Christian foundation… has to be one of the draws, so maybe along with that would be a quality of life that is produced…. There’s a certain value system [in] the desire for education that produces quality citizens.” This was very attractive to “hardworking people looking to make a living, thinking this would be a community that could be home.” Some local farmers began putting their money into entrepreneurial ventures, and industry began to grow in Hillsboro.

“The industrial mode is a good alternative to agriculture for making money and producing things needed in the world.”

The industries of Hillsboro remain a big part of the city today. A dedicated industrial park was established in 1970, and it is now the location for companies such as Barkman Honey (one of the nation’s leading producers of honey), Container Services, Inc. (who produce honey bears, salad dressing bottles, etc.), and Hillsboro Industries (who manufacture truck trailers). While these locally-grounded businesses are a great source of stability, they are not the norm for business in general in Hillsboro.

“We’ve become a corporate-run city.”

Clint Seibel, the Economic Development Director for the City of Hillsboro, says that an increasing majority of businesses, especially retailers, are controlled by much larger corporations, like Dollar General, Wendy’s, and General Motors, to name a few. The industrial side has some corporate pull, but due to the amount of asset in place, they are fairly stable. “Retail is different from manufacturing,” Seibel says. “You can’t buck the big-box stores, they work on such small margins and such big volume.”

“You either work with the big corporations, or you don’t work with anybody. We’re in a corporate world, and small town America is struggling to figure out how to deal with it.”

Seibel knows this, of course, from some experience. He has seen similar towns nearby turn into ghost towns because they refuse to let in any corporate retailers, and he’s also been on the receiving end of businesses big enough to play hard. The issue is not so much the image or ideology of it, but the fact that the authority is aloof to local affairs. He gave the example of when the industrial park was started in the ’70s and “they got a big corporation to come in…. They lasted for 12 years and they pulled the plug upstairs in some penthouse, and 25 jobs were immediately wiped out.” A similar scenario played out in the past couple years with a retailer that came in quickly enough to disrupt the economy, but shut down the location in less than a year. “We’re at their mercy,” Seibel said.

Hillsboro Ford dealer, on main street, one of several active car dealers in Hillsboro.
Construction for a new Center for the Arts at Tabor College.

However, this risk of corporate control is far from spelling certain doom for the economy and citizens of Hillsboro. The stability of the industrial park helps this, and so does the fact that Hillsboro is at a size that can give a little buffer. Tabor College, as well as the local school district (USD 410), maintain fairly consistent employment and business for the downtown. There are still several car dealers in town, which are often among the first to go in hard times. There are major construction projects under way: a new hospital, a pharmacy that is building a bigger location down the street, a new headquarters for MB Mission, an organization of the Mennonite Brethren church, and a new arts center at Tabor College. This still begs the question, do these indicators tell us for certain that Hillsboro is doing fine? Will it still be a healthy city even without these projects, after they are completed in the coming years?

Seibel also stated that the schools, both Tabor and USD 410, are a boon for the city even without the growth that we are seeing today.

Hillsboro High School.

They attract younger families with the quality of education and community values that come with it, as mentioned earlier, but they also make the housing market turn. “If [an instructor’s] contract is up and they choose to move on, all that does is leave an opening for someone else to come in…. You buy a house [somewhere else], you’ll probably own it for a long time.”

On what attracts people towards and away from Hillsboro, Seibel said this:

This “falling in love with the area” is a very important thing, as one NPR article on the prospects of rural America points out. There are usually jobs in a given town, the trick is making the town itself attractive enough for people to look for those jobs. Hillsboro is doing well with it’s “tremendous education,” but what about the vast majority of towns that don’t have a college? Some towns rely on nostalgia, drawing tourists to a place of a simpler way of life. But is that sustainable for enough of the many small towns in the U.S.? It would seem that the values of the nation as a whole will not guarantee much future attention. The fate of much of small-town America, then, is in the hands of its own citizens. But for the city of Hillsboro, at least, those seem like capable hands.