North on High Street is another of his projects: the old National Guard Armory, which he bought in 2007 to keep it from becoming a tear-down and sold in 2009 to a woman who has opened a bridal salon there. Down the street, next to a recently defunct Bible bookshop, is a sliver of a storefront—just seven-and-a-half feet wide—that someone is using for storage. He’s had thoughts about turning it into a coffee shop—someplace to get a latte and maybe a scone made by the town’s fancy cake bakery. He figures there are people who’d like a place like that. If it happens, he’s already got a name: Sufficient Grounds.
“There’s pent-up demand,” he says. He wants Hillsboro to have 21st century niceties without sacrificing its character. (If elected: WiFi everywhere!) But how do you convey that without insulting your neighbors? Take Magee’s, a place where—judging by the reception he gets—he has cheerfully consumed many platters of burgers and fries, chicken and noodles, beans and cornbread. “I love that food,” he says, “but I’d give anything for a hummus plate.”
Occupying much of the block next to the courthouse is what Hastings calls the “best real estate in town”—a one-story, 13,000-square-foot red brick complex that once housed the city’s police and fire departments. He bought it last year for $74,000—just over two-thirds the appraised value. His was the only bid—a fact that has not kept detractors from griping about the deal. Now he’s looking for investors to help him turn the property into a cluster of shops and cafés. A challenge, but nothing compared to what it’s going to take to pull a rabbit out of his hat at Bell’s Opera House.
Hastings is fond of saying that locals used to regard the town’s 1895 opera house like an ex-wife or a former girlfriend: neglected and forgotten. “I came along and said, ‘Wow, what a great old building.’” And it turns out the girlfriend metaphor is apt: Bell’s Opera House is where Hastings’s love affair with Hillsboro enters high-maintenance, engaged-to-Kim-Kardashian territory.
He bought the building in 2007 with his mother, an interior designer who lives in Florida. They got it for $100,000 (the owner was asking triple that) and he says he has put another $100,000 into the commercial storefronts on the street level so that he can rent them out. Hastings takes me up the musty staircase to the second floor, where the performance hall remains—the ornate proscenium and sweeping balcony; huge, ancient frames waiting to be covered with canvas to make flats for long-gone thespians; pullies to load materials from the alley below; and tantalizing scraps of handbills plastered against the backstage walls—“Lynn and Flannery, the Lady Minstrels” and “The Lealy Brothers, Rink Gymnasts,” and the Drayton sisters, who signed their name and the year—1936—in the dressing room. The auditorium is faded and dusty but magnificent. Even with the seats removed, you can feel it: This is where Hillsboro once came to experience something special.
Whether Hillsboro will ever get to do that again is a big question. Hastings figures it will take $4 million to restore it, and he and his mother formed a non-profit with the intent to renovate Bell’s as a multipurpose facility for meetings, conferences, and performances. The plan is for the nonprofit board to purchase the building from them, then fund-raise and apply for grants for historic restoration. He has already received some funds from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission for his initial work. State funds, federal money—there’s no question that the fiscal conservative in him is conflicted about the possibility of taking substantial tax dollars for the opera house’s rebirth. But Hastings thinks this can be a cultural, commercial anchor of uptown. “We know we’re doing something good,” he says. “I see a lot of government money given out for crap. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that’s life.”
Running for public office is not such a stretch for a comedian. That’s according to former Cincinnati Public School Board member Michael Flannery, who began his stand-up career here in Cincinnati with Hastings back in the day. In fact, he says, it’s pretty natural: “The comedian part of you—the part that’s [observing the world and] saying, ‘Hey! Look! That’s wrong!’—that’s the same part of you that wants to get on the school board.” Ironically, he points out, if you’re a comedian and you manage to get elected, “Performance isn’t part of the job.” Nobody wants to be a joke in office.
John Levo is taking Drew Hastings seriously. The retired banker and former council member registered to run as an Independent when no Democrats filed for the office. He says he did it because he had experience to offer and because, with no Democrat running, the next mayor would be elected by a relative handful of people voting in the GOP primary. “I believed that was grossly unfair to the citizens,” Levo says.
He doesn’t doubt Hastings’s sincerity, but it sounds as if he finds Hastings’s vision a bit too Lake Wobegon-ish to accomplish the complicated, collaborative, long-term work of bringing in decent jobs and growing multi-employee companies in the region. “Drew seems to have a real interest in redeveloping downtown Hillsboro,” he says. “But Hillsboro is more than just downtown.”
As Levo sees it, there’s a big difference of opinion between longtime residents and newcomers: The long-timers want to see the expansion of business and industry; the newcomers see the future of the city as a revitalized small town with coffee shops and boutiques. “I don’t see these types of things developing a large number of employees that will increase the revenues of the city,” he says. He commends what Hastings is trying to do with the opera house, “but I don’t know that renovating one building can be enough of a spark plug” for the whole town’s economy. And then there is the glaring example of what happens when grand plans move at a glacial pace. The historic Parker Hotel on Main Street was purchased years ago by someone who plans to restore it; today, even the most charitable preservationist would be hard-pressed not to call it an eyesore, and the owner and the city are battling over its future.
“Drew is actually trying to do something,” Levo concedes. “But I don’t know if what he envisions is what the rest of the citizens of Hillsboro are envisioning.”
That question will be answered this fall, when Hillsboro does or does not elect Hastings mayor after what may or may not be a grueling campaign. Like so many who have waded into the pool of public life via the ballot box, he’s suddenly found himself neck-deep in dirty laundry.
In mid-April, a former girlfriend filed a complaint against him with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that she had received a “disturbing message” from Hastings. The investigating officer spoke to the woman and to Hastings, who said that he was the one being harassed by the 25-year-old. The sheriff’s office found no physical threats, concluded it was a breakup spat, told the two to stay away from one another, and filed no charges. All of which was handled out of the public eye until three weeks after the GOP primary in May, when The Highland County Press wrote about the situation and the allegations—including the woman’s claim that Hastings had threatened to use his friendship with the sheriff against her, and a message Hastings allegedly sent to the woman in which he told her “I am suddenly aware that my life is not working. I have a drug problem. I have an escape problem.”
Not exactly Weinergate or the Valerie Plame Affair, but more than enough to give Hastings a taste of Big Time Politics. Overnight, he says, “The campaign went from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to In the Heat of the Night.” He says the “drug problem” was a reference to a reaction he was having at the time to a prescribed drug. “She made it sound like a lifestyle drug problem,” he says. The rest of it was end-of-relationship drama, leaked to the press, he claims, by his detractors.
It was, Hastings says, “Sheer TMZ.” A little bit of Hollywood, down on the farm.
Photograph by Jonathan Willis. Originally published in the July 2011 issue.
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