Hillsboro, Wisconsin – Vernon County

May 30, 2024

Hillsboro, Wisconsin

The Gateway To Bluff Country

 

A laid-back Midwestern city boasting a strong agricultural economy and a growing downtown core.

Hillsboro, Wisconsin, might not be on every American’s radar, but when travelers pass through or tourists stay a while, they come to realize this rural city of just under 1,400 is the friendliest place in the whole state.

Located within Vernon County and on the West Branch of the Baraboo River, Hillsboro, like much of Wisconsin, originated as a dairy producer, shipping butter and cheese all across the United States. During World War I, Hillsboro milk was transported to U.S. soldiers fighting on the front lines in Europe.

Life nowadays is laid-back, says Hillsboro Mayor Gregory Kubarski. Agriculture drives the city’s economy, while the area’s natural amenities offer plenty for residents to keep busy.

“We’re in the unglaciated part of Wisconsin,” says Kubarski. “It’s a beautiful area. The people that live here want to live here because of the seasons and because of hunting and fishing. You’ve got all the seasons here. If you don’t like the heat, well, just wait a few months and you’ll see white snow.”

There’s plenty of cultural history in Hillsboro, where the area’s earliest settlers came from Germany and Bohemia, leading the city to be coined the Czech capital of Wisconsin. Many current residents are descendants of those early settlers, as families have thrived in Hillsboro for generations, maintaining that tight-knit sense of community along the way.

Expansion, both demographically and economically, takes a greater effort in small rural establishments such as Hillsboro. Slowly but surely, this place is growing, and the city’s administration has high hopes for what’s to come.

 

Small-business successes

When Josh Finch, Hillsboro’s City Administrator, assumed his role in 2021, the city’s downtown area had 10 vacant buildings. Some of those vacancies were due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but others were unoccupied for a decade. Action was needed, so Finch and Kubarski turned to the city council and the Community Development Authority group for aid.

“When I got here, it was very apparent that the council wanted to see the downtown flourish, and rightfully so,” says Finch.

First, the local council groups established internal revolving loan funds, plus façade improvement grants, to incentivize the rehabilitation and revitalization of Hillsboro’s commercial buildings, says Finch. Eventually, as a result of diligent effort, the city, under two administrators, procured two community development incentive grants totaling approximately $436,000 from the Wisconsin Development Corporation.

On top of that, Hillsboro sought more funding through the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which offered hedge funds for business expansion.

“I was able to help obtain approximately $120,000 for various new businesses to incentivize them to start up,” says Finch, referencing the Main Street Bounce Back grant. “We’ve really tried our best to be a community that is open for business and open for expansion.”

After that, businesses swiftly streamed in, notably a state-of-the-art gym and a smokehouse butcher shop serving high-quality meats unique to the Hillsboro area. The city council’s effort to invest as much as they are is somewhat atypical, Finch says. That’s why he’s so proud that 10 new businesses have moved into the city’s core during his tenure, leaving just  (Two)vacant units remaining.

“Over the last 18 to 24 months, we’ve seen our entire downtown relatively filled,” says Finch. “That is a great thing to see. We are definitely not done yet. We’re still working diligently.”

One of those new businesses, La Marimba Nicaraguan Cuisine, is a shining story for Hillsboro. It began when the owner of The Power Station Nutrition, a bubble tea spot, expressed interest in opening a Nicaraguan restaurant, feeling that Hillsboro was the perfect area.

“That is incredible to see that we’re having that kind of progressive growth in our community,” says Finch. “And I think it’s also a sign that people want to build here; they want to have their businesses in town, and, yes, they want to invest in this community.”

“You want to talk about the American dream? You can do that right here in Hillsboro, and we’ll help you,” promises Finch.

Housing and infrastructure

In a recent council meeting, the city of Hillsboro approved the sale of 10 new lots for housing construction, along with a development partnership.

“They’re going to be quality houses,” says Finch, “except they’re going to be accessible and affordable, which is wonderful when you’re talking about $275,000 to $300,000 for a house purchase.”

This new project, along with additional apartments and duplexes in the works, is very exciting. Finch says the city anticipates its population climbing 7% by the end of 2026(updated timeline). That number marks serious growth, especially after the previous census in 2020, when Hillsboro was among many Vernon County communities to see a slight decrease in population.

Finch and the city council are stressing that Hillsboro grows itself in a sustainable fashion that meets the needs of residents without straining the existing infrastructure. The last thing the city needs is a disruption to traffic flow or an unnecessary exertion of the water and sewer systems.

Still, as it stands right now, there simply isn’t enough housing in Hillsboro, says Mayor Kubarski. New affordable housing is the next priority, but he’d like to see more properties up for grabs, and he uses a hilarious analogy to describe that dearth of availability.

“If you’re going to sell your house [in Hillsboro], you don’t need to call a realtor; you don’t even need to buy a for-sale sign,” jokes Kubarski. “I think if you went to a local restaurant or bar and said you’re going to sell your house, by the time you can finish your beer, your house will be sold.”

The leadership group at Hillsboro wants that to change. One avenue to a solution comes via the creation of a Tax Incremental District (TID). Finch found success with this process in the past, and he plans to utilize it again to incentivize developers on future development projects, from affordable housing to industrial endeavors and water and sewer upgrades.

Beyond that, there’s a state highway project coming through Hillsboro, with construction expected to be wrapped up by 2027. This will boost traffic flow through Hillsboro, which already has several main highways that converge in the area, a rarity for a rural community.

A new highway will also improve accessibility to Gundersen St. Joseph’s Hospital. Hillsboro is one of the smallest communities in the state to have a fully functional hospital with operation rooms, ICUs, and other amenities. St. Joseph’s employs over 240 people, which is part of why the city has early plans to establish a childcare center in Hillsboro..

“It probably sounds small-scale,” says Kubarski. “But in this area, that would be huge.”

 

Small city, big heart

Farming is in people’s blood in Hillsboro, says Mayor Kubarski, and that notion is reflected in the city’s dynamic agriculture industry. The area used to be 100% dairy farms, explains Kubarski, but that’s changed over the years as larger agricultural companies have swooped into Hillsboro.

No longer are there many farms with 50 to 60 cows; Hillsboro now houses several larger farms with over 1,000 cows. The agricultural output has diversified, too, though the city’s big business comes from multiple plants producing butter and cheese.

And with such a hearty farming industry comes plenty of celebration.

“We have been really trying to push tourism into this area,” says Finch.

Hillsboro is considered a gateway community to the Driftless Region, Wisconsin’s gorgeous flowery area characterized by steep bluffs, cliffs, and valleys. The scenic landscape offers tons of recreational activities, such as fishing, hiking, and cycling.

“[Hillsboro] is a great place to visit. It’s a great place to stay,” emphasizes Finch. “And even if you’re not an outdoors person, there are still things for you to do.”

If you’re a car buff, the Hillsboro area has an annual car show and a drag strip for racing. Or there is the Hillsboro Brewing Company, home to over 25 craft beers and seltzers. Hillsboro Brewing Company, or HBC, is unique with its restoration and retrofitting of an old 1900’s carnation plant making it one of the oldest buildings in Hillsboro. The city also plays host to the “Hillsboro Charity Tractor Pull,” which brings in nationally acclaimed pullers for the summer weekend event. And the event grows bigger and bigger every year.

“It just hits the heart of the area here,” Kubarski says of the tractor event. “This is just one of our events that is huge. It brings in 10,000 people into our town on a weekend.”

Events of that magnitude put Hillsboro’s personality on display for all of the Midwest, opening the rest of the United States to what this small city has to offer. There is a dominant agriculture industry. There are small-business success stories. There are gorgeous landscapes that host vibrant community gatherings. And with big things on the horizon, Hillsboro is just scratching the surface of its vast potential.

AT A GLANCE

City of Hillsboro, Wisconsin

What: A small agricultural city committed to empowering small businesses and creating affordable housing solutions for future residents.

Where: Vernon County, Wisconsin

Website: https://www.hillsborowi.com/

PREFERRED VENDORS

Room Tax Commission – www.charitypull.com

The Hillsboro Charity Tractor Pull happens every second weekend of August. It all began when a group of local friends noticed folks in Hillsboro struggling without getting much-needed help. Since farming is a big deal around here, they figured a tractor pull would be a great way to lend a hand.

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