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Bumpy economy hasnt rocked us yet

Several economists have concluded the American economy is now in a recession, even if its technical definition hasn't been satisfied.

Has it arrived in Hillsdale?

Recently, I set out to find it.

I checked in with a librarian, a brewmeister, a real estate agent, a commercial property owner, a florist, a business leader and a social service agency director.

The librarian

Virginia Tribe, who is in charge of the Hillsdale Branch Library, knows that recessions increase library use. Think 'free entertainment.'

'Our numbers have been holding steady,' she says.

No change, just the same steady increase that's been going on for three years. In past recessions, librarians also see the newly unemployed hunched over the computers, reworking their résumés. But Virginia doesn't sense that is happening, either.

The brewmeister

At the Hillsdale Brew Pub, where you might expect patrons to be scrimping on brew, manager Rob Seeley hasn't seen evidence of the recession either. Business has been good since the recovery from the big dip after Sept. 11, 2001, he says.

'I think it must be our new brewer,' he says, nodding in the general direction of Matt Carter, who is sitting on my side of the bar drinking one of his own concoctions. What do the pub's clientele order for their recession-oblivious elbow-bending?

'Hammerhead and IPA run neck and neck,' Carter says.

Both Seeley and Carter agree that, recession or no recession, patrons keep coming back to taste how Carter and his brewing colleagues have been fine-tuning their recipes.

The commercial property owner

Frank Hasabe has only one vacant unit in his 12-unit office building tucked behind the Hillsdale Brew Pub. He's owned the building for more than 25 years.

'Things are good,' he says although the future is a question mark. He looks to Oregon Health and Sciences University as a stabilizing force in Hillsdale. As long as OHSU can attract research money, Hillsdale should be fine.

'We are kind of joined at the hip,' he says slapping his wallet pocket.

The real estate agent

Mike Miller, who has been selling real estate for 16 years here, says the local market has gone flat. Of course, February is traditionally a slow month in real estate. The agents expect the normal spring surge.

'The question is how long can we sustain it?' wonders Miller, who works at RE/MAX Equity Group.

While prices still creep up in Hillsdale, the increase is nothing like the legendary 'super year,' 2005. Sellers could name their prices in 2005. That's when 'the banks took their eye off the ball,' says Miller. 'They'd do anything to get a loan. If you paid enough money up front, they'd give you a 'no-looky' loan - they wouldn't even look at the house.'

Miller said, 'affordability' is still a big issue in Hillsdale. The number of qualified buyers is shrinking.

'What young couple can afford a $500,000 house?' he asks.

So, why aren't prices coming down in Hillsdale? People still want to live here, and Hillsdale sellers don't need to sell so they hold out for their price, Miller said.

The florist

Last November, Christy Hillman was talking openly about closing Z-Fiori, the florist shop, which she co-owns. The problem then wasn't a recession but the drop in foot traffic resulting from the closure of the Wild Oats store next door. Back then, she was holding out hope for a heartwarmingly prosperous Valentine's Day.

She got it. Because it was on a Thursday, sweethearts spent their money on flowers sent to offices rather than on four-course, candle-lit dinners out.

'Send flowers to the wife at work, yada, yada,' she said, off-handedly.

Z-Fiori also got a boost from a featured 'Hillsdale Has It' advertorial in The Southwest Community Connection. 'A lot of people have been coming in to support us. The Hillsdale community is very supportive of community-minded businesses. I feel a lot better.'

The business leader

As a co-owner of Paloma Clothing for - count 'em - 33 years, and as the president of the Hillsdale Business and Professional Association, Mike Roach picks up where Christy Hillman leaves off.

'If we go into a recession, people need to spend their money where they live,' Roach says. 'I mean, is Amazon going to give money to your local school?' His mantra is 'buy local.'

That's what they are doing at Paloma, he says. At a time when any sales increase would be good, Paloma saw a 5.1-percent increase over January 2007. And, surprisingly, February was up 5 percent. But Roach is worried about the future.

'Until recently, the average family paid about 10 percent of their income in food and fuel,' Roach said. 'Now they are now paying 20 percent. That's a significant reduction in discretionary income' to spend in places like Paloma.

The social service agency director

As the executive director of Neighborhood House, Southwest Portland's main social service agency, Rick Nitti measures the state of the local economy in boxes - food boxes for the poor. The poor - or the 'food insecure' as he calls them - are the first to feel any recession, and feeling it they are.

In February, Neighborhood House distributed more food boxes than ever before - 329 food boxes. This year's monthly average is 18 percent above last year's.

The other measure of a recession is charitable contributions.

'If the market tanks, the foundations make less money,' Nitti said.

Corporations also feel the pinch. Banks, the most generous corporate givers to Neighborhood House, may also cut back on contributions.

A Neighborhood House fund-raising drive at the end of 2007 did well, but this year, says Nitti, watching the tell-tale food box distribution rise, 'It's too early to say what will happen.'

But if the food box 'economic indicator' proves correct, the local economy, which so far seems to be hanging on in the Hillsdale Town Center, could see trouble.

This column originally appeared in The Hillsdale News, which can be read at hillsdalenews.org.