Luke Robson is an investor behind the vision for an economic and cultural renaissance in his now hometown of Hillsdale, Michigan. Robson is buying up property downtown in hopes of sparking an economic base that will attract a vibrant community of like-minded individuals and families. He’s an alumnus of Hillsdale College (2017) and in this interview, he talks about the history of the town and what it could look like going forward. While many Americans are familiar with the college, few know much about or give any thought to the town itself. He recently spoke with senior editor Ray Nothstine about his vision for Hillsdale.
Tell me about what you want to do for Hillsdale, Michigan, because I think a lot of readers know that a good chunk of middle America has been hollowed out. There have been books and even films about this—and political attention.
I want to hear a little bit about the town. You live there. What are a few of the biggest socioeconomic challenges facing Hillsdale? What’s the background of Hillsdale, and where do you want to take it?
Robson: Yes, I’d say that as far as socioeconomic issues facing Hillsdale are concerned, there are three main issues. The main one is economic instability. You mentioned the hollowing out of middle America—that’s hit Hillsdale very hard. I think that the median salary here hovers around $37,000. The reason for that is simply because industry has left town. There used to be around 12 factories in the immediate area. Now there are about two. It’s relatively easy for capital to up and leave town, but it’s harder for families and people to follow.
There are also a few social issues that affect Hillsdale negatively because of poverty. There’s a significant drug problem that impacts the town. While not as bad as in many places, domestic violence is present. However, there’s not a lot of public crime in Hillsdale. Most crime happens behind closed doors. It’s stuff that should be addressed, and the town wants to get it all figured out, but it’s not as problematic as it could be.
I think the third trait that harms Hillsdale is a depressed imagination. Hillsdale used to be a booming place. That happened because the railroad line coming out of New York heading West ended in Hillsdale. That is funny because they were building the railroad West and the government just ran out of cash after the line was built out to Hillsdale. This was in the days before you could just print more money. The government said, “Shoot, I guess we get to set up shop here in Hillsdale for a little bit and wait until we have more cash.”
Because of that, Hillsdale became a regional economic hub. As people would move out West, goods would flow East. Hillsdale was an important place for that reason and a lot of industry took root. As modern economic trends have developed, much of that same industry left the area. While Hillsdale used to be on a main line of transportation, the interstate jogs around Hillsdale now. The railroad still operates, but on a much slower and lower basis than it used to. There’s a municipal airport here that gets a decent amount of traffic, but certainly nothing huge.
As all those economic opportunities have left, you can sort of feel if you walk around town and talk to some people that they’re down on themselves here. As I talked to them about my project, what I see as the potential for the town, you can see the imagination start turning in their heads again. People are excited about the economic activity and innovation. I think the depressed imagination is probably the easiest thing to fix because these people love where they’re from and they want to see Hillsdale do well.
I can’t fix the social issues. I can try and help. I can put out a good message and behave well myself, but that’s up to people to try and repent and turn their lives around. I hope to be able to help with the economic instability as well through ideas, investment, and renovation projects downtown. Hopefully, that will attract several good jobs, spurring employers to come back to the region. I don’t expect 10 more factories to pop up and for things to be like they used to be, but I’m confident we can improve the economic prospects of the town.
Within this renaissance and rebuilding you’re thinking about implementing in Hillsdale, the big question is why? I think this probably plays a role in what attracted you to Hillsdale College, but why is the town a good candidate for revitalization? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background? Why you? Why in this place? Why here? What is attracting you to this project at this point in history and in your life, as you’re still a young guy?
Robson: I’m a graduate of Hillsdale College. I graduated in 2017, and my wife is also a graduate. We met up after we had both graduated, but we both fell in love with the town. Not just the college, we also like the area, and really like the people here. We knew that we could live well in this area. I think that the town of Hillsdale is a good candidate for something like a renaissance or a rejuvenation because of the unique position of the college in the American mind and the opportunities to leverage that opportunity to live well.
Hillsdale College holds a special place in the American mind because of its idiosyncratic approach. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s an idiosyncratic approach to education these days, but they have a strong stance on independence and ordered liberty, and they’re willing to take the steps necessary to provide that for themselves. I think people look to the college as an inspiration, and we get national attention from that, both good and bad.
The other reason that it’s a good candidate is an economic reason: depressed property prices. If you want to buy a house in Hillsdale right now, it’s quite difficult. Those prices are relatively inflated now because there’s a lot of demand to live here. However, commercial property prices are still depressed. My average purchase price hovers around $150,000, often quite a bit less than that. When I came in, it was relatively easy to purchase the buildings and make the necessary acquisitions.
As far as my background, why I’m able to do this, is that I ended up, at 28, becoming a sort of a surprise trust fund baby. My wife and I were in a situation where we had plenty of money, and we had good friends in town and a good church here, and we had a desire to live here. Because the town is a good candidate for this kind of revitalization, I might as well use that cash to make this project happen.
That’s sort of the long and short of it. I’m attracted to the project because I love Hillsdale. I love the town. I love the college, but I also think that there’s money to be made here. I believe it can have success because there are multiple factors that make Hillsdale appealing.
Just in terms of talking to local people, whether they be residents of the community, maybe somebody who’s a little down on their luck, but what is the local buy-in from people who may not be connected to the college, may not be considered to be in a highly educated class, or may not be somebody who has a background in real estate or an entrepreneur? I’m sure you’ve talked to many folks within the community. What kind of buy-in do you feel like you’re receiving?
Robson: So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive feedback that I’ve received from the people in town. I think I get a lot of goodwill because my wife and I actually live here. We’re not some out-of-town developer who’s hoping to launch a project and simply jack up rents. We want to be people of Hillsdale. We want to be one of them. I think we get a lot of positive feedback from that. When I talk to them about the project, I could scare them and say, “Oh, I’m coming in and I’m going to buy out the properties, kick out current tenants, raise rents, and make this place ritzy, and kick you guys out of it.” That’s not the goal.
It will be a delicate balance of, “Okay, how do we improve economic prospects while maintaining affordability for people who are already here?” There are some ways that I’m going to try and figure out how to make it work for the people who already live and work downtown. One of those ways is to assist businesses here that do just fine, but maybe they don’t have the business practices in place to maximize their potential and be able to afford a higher rent. Rather than just simply raising the rent and saying, “Figure it out,” we can hire a business analyst to come and meet with them and help them see, “Okay, here are some small things you can do, some processes you can put in place to maximize your potential.” Then, as we get more people living downtown, hopefully, that also makes it more palatable for local business owners and local employers to maintain control of what they already have.
Why do you think people are hungrier for localities where they feel a sense of belonging and more of a commitment to remain there? Much of the dominant culture—you and I have talked about this before—but we’re supposed to go where we can find the most lucrative job, maybe find the fanciest private school for our kids, and the best opportunities from a financial standpoint, even if it involves living next to people that we never form a relationship with.
Robson: Yes, I think that framing is exactly right. The narrative we tell students, often starting in elementary school, but certainly in high school, is to go to school, maximize your earning potential, and pursue the best economic opportunities. I believe the problem with that, and I think the reason that people are starting to look at places like Hillsdale, places like Steubenville, places like Moscow, Idaho, and other attainable localities like this, comes from the emptiness of economic interest alone.
While it’s important and you need to feed yourself, you need to feed your family, we need to be making money, that pursuit doesn’t account for the highest human desires. The highest human desire is the desire to be truly loved. You need money, but there’s nothing noble in the pursuit of money for its own sake. You can achieve victory in the pursuit of money, but you’ll find out if that’s what you’re pursuing that there’s no nobility in that.
I think people are beginning to reject the narrative that we’ve been fed our entire lives. We see it for what it is, a false bill of goods. We’re told we want money and ease, but we crave just to be loved. I think that’s a lot more accessible in a small town because, in a place like Hillsdale, you can move here and more easily pursue responsibility. I think that’s what people desire.
Oftentimes, higher amounts of responsibility come with a higher earning potential, but we should make sure we have those two things in the right order, because if you pursue responsibility and then act competently, that requires you to take care of not just yourself but also your neighbor, and there is nobility in that.
If you’re pursuing competence and responsibility, it’s not an inherently elitist thing, like pursuing money. You can’t compare your price tag to somebody else that way because somebody who’s very good at running the local pregnancy resource center might be making less than somebody who’s running a local business well, but they’re both providing essential needs to their community.
The pursuit of competence and responsibility is a lot easier in a small town than it is in a large city, because if you’re in a small town, it’s much easier to diagnose issues and pursue community solutions. It’s easier to grasp and achieve. If you’re in a big city—Boston, New York, or San Francisco—it’s impossible to take proper responsibility. You can start a nonprofit and start working on things, but the ownership of the issue won’t fall to you. In the small town, meaningful ownership is more achievable.
You’re doing this, have you done any research on other towns that are like-minded in size and maybe just culturally, and have dealt with some of the same obstacles as Hillsdale faces today? Have you learned many things, or what way they may be comparable to your project?
Robson: Yes, I think the most analogous project right now is going on in Steubenville, Ohio. I’ve reached out to one of the people that’s leading that project there. I’m going to go visit hopefully in early January and see it firsthand. Steubenville is very similar. They are in an even more depressed economic situation than Hillsdale. The guy I spoke to said his average building acquisition price was about $50,000, which is significantly lower. Steubenville has the benefit of another unique college in Franciscan University. Franciscan is a Catholic university, and so they’ve been able to capitalize on that Catholic identity.
If you’re a young family, or a young dad, a young mom, or just a young individual, and you want to live a good Catholic lifestyle and be in a community that supports that lifestyle, you can move to Steubenville. Then you can find a great church there. There’s a vibrant church community. If you have an idea on how to improve the town or if you have a business idea, you can go to Chesterton’s, their local cigar bar, and find somebody who can help you out there.
I would say Steubenville’s project is four or five years ahead of where I’m at right now. I’m just starting up in Hillsdale and finding partners, generating interest, and trying to get the ball rolling. They’ve been at it for a longer time in Steubenville, so the institutions that pop up there are setting the whole thing in a much faster rate of motion. They’ve got a larger group of people that are investing. They’ve got a local Strong Towns chapter. They’ve got a couple of their buildings fixed up now and they’re operating. Among the Catholic crowd, for sure, they’ve got a larger presence in that imagination. They’re a more attractive place for people to move to right now.
There’s also Moscow, Idaho, that I know less about. I know that they’re also focused on a religious movement with the Doug Wilson crowd out there. They’ve taken ownership of a few buildings downtown and they’ve got New Saint Andrews College there, and so they also have their unique Protestant point of view. Hillsdale is going to be its own flavor of this, and so we’re going to attract our own type of person. I’ve yet to figure out or find out exactly who it is, whether it’s going to be more on the civic side of things, meaning people focused more on Hillsdale’s vision of America, or if it’ll have some of that religious flavor to it. I’m not sure yet. I’m excited to find out, and there’s no way to know until they start showing up.
You can correct me if I’m wrong, but in your Substack you talked a little bit about architecture and beauty, right? Is that an important part of this project? Why is that important? Why have something that looks good when functionality is prized by so many developers?
Robson: I think architecture is important. I’m doing this in a historic downtown. Many of the buildings in Hillsdale were built in the 1860s or mid-1800s. They looked gorgeous as all downtown buildings back then did. These structures have seen better days, and so one could come in and say, “We’re going to do whatever is functional and whatever is the easiest.” But with my project, I want to make sure that we’re preserving that historic architecture and treating it well.
I think I want to do that because I think a lot of people are obsessed with policy and the political and those kinds of outcomes. They pursue economic growth at any cost, and care for little else. They see a building go up, and so the building stock increases, but does that structure look good? Is that building ennobling of the people that live there and walk around it? I think we’re obsessed with these political ideas or these sorts of abstract ideas, such as economics just by itself, and a lot of developers neglect the aesthetic state of their communities.
A good culture begins first through religious worship, but then through care for the physical and nurturing that so you’re creating beautiful things in the physical world. If you’re in a world that is caring for the earthly physical things, that can help teach people in that neighborhood to care for the higher things as well.
If we care about a lot of neighbors, we need to care for the environment in which our neighbor lives. It’s good to meet the bare necessity of shelter. It’s better to have a shelter that is beautiful and doesn’t give them just physical shelter, but also gives them something beautiful to contemplate and look at and help them understand that they can create something beautiful, too.
We can do more than think beautiful thoughts. We can create beautiful things.
As far as architecture is concerned in Hillsdale, it’s finding people that are capable of historic preservation. One of the projects here that I am about to start pursuing is starting up a traditional trade school, potentially partnering with the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in that effort. The ACBA is in Charleston, South Carolina, and they teach kids how to do stone masonry, plasterwork, blacksmithing, architectural carpentries, timber framing, and classical architecture.
I recently went on a visit there, and it was just incredible what they’re teaching 18-year-olds to do. They’re taking some idiot freshman just out of high school and teaching him or her how to carve a block of stone into this gorgeous column. Or take a bunch of iron and create a beautiful chandelier out of it, or a beautiful railing. They show and teach that there is more to life than merely function. I think that we need to be doing that here in Hillsdale as well. We can do more than think beautiful thoughts. We can create beautiful things.
How does Hillsdale College view your endeavor? What conversations on that side of town have you had? Because I’m sure this is beneficial for the college.
Luke: So far, they’ve been interested observers. I talk to them, I have friends up the hill at the college, and we’re in conversation with one another. They are very supportive. They like the idea of the town flourishing. They want to stay here. They’re not direct investors just yet, although perhaps one day. We haven’t had those kinds of conversations.
You mentioned in a previous conversation Hillsdale being a place where they have vibrant conferences and draw people from all over the country, maybe even from other parts of the world. You see this in some areas of the country where the left flourishes culturally, where they have these retreat centers or they have big cultural movements, maybe Woodstock in the late 1960s.
What does success ultimately look like for the town of Hillsdale? What are the possibilities that you see in your mind that might be out of reach for the person who lives there, and they don’t see that yet? What does success ultimately look like?
Robson: At the crassest level, it’s just opportunity. How can we increase economic opportunity, mainly here for the town, and ensure that it can continue to thrive? In my vision, and I hope that I can fulfill a lot of this, there’s a lot of ground to be covered between here and my goals. This idea of a conference is probably the very end, and Hillsdale already holds this outsized bit of the American imagination because of the college and because of what it stands for. If we can leverage that and turn the town of Hillsdale into this place where conservatives, in the broadest sense of that word, can come and have a real conversation with one another about how best to live, how best to promote their communities, how best to pursue a civic life—there is a lot of potential there.
I think that’s something that’s missing right now from a lot of the conservative world. We have plenty of conferences. You can go out to DC and think tanks out there will have their lectures and programs. I have yet to come across a place that is a more relaxed, intimate environment where we can come and live together, at least for a short time, and have those conversations. We can focus on how we pursue human flourishing in a less fast-paced environment than DC, and not just on a college campus.
There are places on the left that pursue these things. The model that I’m currently looking at for this is Chautauqua, New York, where they have a massive conference every summer that lasts nine weeks. Each week is a separate topic. Over 100,000 people come out to participate in this together. It’s not just lectures; they have their own opera company, ballet company, and daily worship. They have all these wonderful things where they are coming and trying to best realize the liberal project for a bit together and then, hopefully, take some of that home.
I think we can do that here in Hillsdale, and I think that people would be attracted to that. I speak to some leadership at various think tanks and other institutions, and so far, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback agreeing that the conservative movement could use something like that. I think as far as my vision is concerned, that would be the ultimate success, but at the end of the day, as far as the town is concerned, success by any measure is young families moving back to the area to raise their children. It’s older families moving here to retire and be with their children as they grow old. It’s current families sticking around rather than leaving for what they perceive to be greener pastures. It’s a better shared civic life and it’s all those families worshiping together at a good church.