It’s a grey wintry Tuesday in Hillsboro, a city of 6,557 in southern Ohio at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Surrounded by a sprawl of farms spotted with cattle and barns, protective signs emblazon the city limits along the highways: “The citizens of Hillsboro warn you! If you sell drugs here, we will put you away. This means you!”
The black and yellow signs are reminiscent of gold rush ephemera abandoned in wild west ghost towns: hand-painted, cock-eyed words frame a skull with crossed bones on wood paneling. The bone-chilling welcome is a community project developed by Drew Hastings—part-time comedian, real estate developer, farmer and full-time Hillsboro mayor.
The small city is “very definitely rural Appalachia,” said Hastings, and with it comes small town economic troubles: addiction, the migration of its youth to larger cities and the struggle to re-develop a historic downtown into a thriving uptown.
There are a lot of things Hastings is working on in the small town to make it an economically viable place to live—bars and coffeehouses, two usual staples in a small town, don’t exist yet in uptown Hillsboro. He hopes that eventually social and economic development will attract baby boomers who see the value of living in uptown Hillsboro secured by a prospering, safe community.
Hastings, who sits behind his desk piled with letters, notes, brochures and the rambling to-do lists of a mayor, had just met with the county’s board of developmental disability. He is encouraging their community project to roll-out Adirondack chairs painted with psychedelia stencils later this year in uptown locations.
Hastings favors the historic buildings of uptown—he owns the Opera House—but says Hillsboro is a place where the 18th century is meeting the 20th century, and that makes it a challenging place to work.
“I can have an 11 o’clock meeting here about us doing fiber optic Wi-Fi uptown. At 12 o’clock I’m having an emergency meeting because there are still homes three blocks from City Hall where people are defecating in a five-gallon plastic bucket and throwing it out back in a creek,” said Hastings. “You have that kind of poverty lifestyle but we’re on Twitter like everybody else.”
Earlier that morning, Hastings tweeted a video of a stand-up comedy sketch in which he impersonates the motivational speaker Jack Freeman.
Hastings said he is better known for his career as a stand-up comedian than a mayor. Featured on Comedy Central and The Tonight Show, he has a following of about 30,000 fans and will travel to Nebraska later this week. In February he will be the featured speaker at the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce Groundhog Day Breakfast.
Hastings said he’s surprised by the large amount of support his comedy receives in rural Midwestern towns..
Part of that support comes from his comedic wantonness to set political correctness aside and delve right into honest conversations, something that has helped him connect with folks in small-town America.
The Hillsboro mayor said at the Donald Trump rally last year in Wilmington, Ohio, that he believes in Trump’s messages because he, too, is an outspoken community leader who is quite often criticized for his political incorrectness.
Criticism for Hastings snowballed into a scary court trial last year. The Hillsboro Times-Gazette reported that Hastings was found not guilty in a jury trial after he was indicted with felony charges. The fiasco included demonstrations on the courthouse by supporters who paid for newspaper advertisements in support of Hastings.
Hastings later dubbed the trial as a “witch hunt” after two charges were dismissed before the jury found him not guilty. He said he’s not going to let the five citizens who filed the charges make him become bitter—instead, he sees it as an opportunity to become better.
Hastings will be the featured speaker Feb. 2 at the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce annual Groundhog Day Breakfast. The event is open to the public and tickets can be purchased for $25. There are three ways to make reservations: Call 740-335-0761, email email@example.com or register online at fayettecountyohio.com
Reach Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton