Betty Hill-Swander will tell you that as a single mother back in the 1970s, she wasn't trying to change the world, or even her little portion of Iowa. She was just trying to provide for her daughter, and her best idea was to buy up property in Valley Junction, then a downtrodden slice of West Des Moines.
But Hill-Swander is, perhaps, the unwitting matriarch of Valley Junction and more responsible than anyone for its turnaround, which Monday made it a Great American Street Award winner with four other communities.
She owns 13 properties in what is now a quaint, turn-of-the-century, charm-oozing shopping district, a compact, eclectic mix of 120 locally and independently owned art, boutique and specialty businesses. That’s down from 18 buildings she once owned – her idea of slowing down at 85 years old.
Please finish this sentence: Valley Junction is a model of small business success because .... Tell us in the comments.
At one point, she recalls, folks teased they should rename Valley Junction “Hill-ville.”
“It’s to me a very cozy little town in a big city, just a charming little place where people can come down and walk from one shop to the next and just have a wonderful afternoon shopping and stopping into a restaurant to have a bite to eat,” Hill-Swander says.
Her heart swells at her beloved Valley Junction’s national compliment.
“I fell in love with it,” she says, “and that’s why I started buying property.”
Historic Valley Junction Foundation Director Jim Miller says the title of matriarch is deserved.
“Betty’s cool, one of a kind – all business, but all heart, too,” he says. “I truly do not believe we would be the retail specialty district that we are if not for Betty stepping in 40 years ago.”
West Des Moines Community Economic Development Director Clyde Evans says Hill-Swander has been a benevolent landlord whose low rents in side-street buildings gave Valley Junction’s hallmark small businesses breathing room to establish before “graduating” to premier Fifth Street storefronts,
“One of the things Valley Junction has been pretty lucky with is to have good property owners there, and Betty is one of the larger ones,’ Evans says. “It’s been a good place to start businesses.”
Bawdiness Gives Way to Charm
Hill-Swander says Valley Junction “was a pretty run down little district” in 1970 when she bought The Theatrical Shop after her dance supply business outgrew a studio in a neighboring suburb.
A meat locker slaughtered farm animals in the heart of Valley Junction, a lumber yard’s open bins attracted vermin, and an overall unkempt appearance veiled architectural gems.
“Run down.” That’s one way of putting it. “Bawdy” is another.
Six bars and a liquor store in the same block of Fifth Street contributed to the railroad town’s rough-and-tumble reputation, where anything could happen and often did. There were also rumors that the theater she was buying had in one iteration been a vaudeville house that rented out hotel rooms from the upstairs.
“There was probably a little extra business going on upstairs,” Hill-Swander says, winking behind wireless rose-colored glasses that swallow a third of her face.
When she bought the former theater, West Des Moines city officials wondered what business she was up to.
“At that time, theaters were closing and triple-X theaters were opening up, and I got a call from Elmer True,“ she says with mock sternness, recalling her conversation with the longtime West Des Moines mayor.
“He said, ‘Oh, Betty, I hope you are not planning on putting in an X-rated theater,’” Hill-Swander recalls. “I told him that was not my thing, that I was only interested in teaching little girls to pointe their toes.”
Her MBA Stands for “My Business Aptitude”
Hill-Swander says she began honing her business acumen as a “little dorky kid with red hair and freckles” who loved playing Monopoly more than almost any else. She didn’t go to college, laughs about her MBA – “My Business Aptitude,” she calls it – and credits her success to “a lot of determination and desire to make things happen.”
Unmarried with a daughter to raise at the time, she smiles wryly – coyly, even – and calls her path “unusual.”
She eventually married Jack Swander, who died seven years ago, and they teamed to transform the district one building at a time. The meat locker and slaughterhouse became a sewing shop. The lumber yard is gone. There’s no hint of a red-light district in Valley Junction.
And so it goes.
“At the time we were concentrating on buying all this property, most of it on contract, we were really, really spread thin,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I have gone too far.’ But I kept my little nose to the grindstone and it all worked out.”
If you read this story, you might also like:
- BREAKING NEWS: Congratulations, Valley Junction and West Des Moines, on Your Great American Main Street Award
- Why I Cried For You, Valley Junction
- Valley Junction Showed Grit as Merchants Cleaned Up Grime of 1993 Flood
Beth Dalbey's story has been selected as a Greatest Person of the Day feature on the Huffington Post website. To find more stories on people named the Greatest Person, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/greatest-person-of-the-day.