Dennis Hiltner was born the first of eight children on a 90-acre farm in Langdon, N.D. At The Gourmet Shop, 58 years later, Hiltner reflected recently on North Dakota winters. Columbia is in the tropics.
Hiltner attended Catholic schools. He played varsity baseball for St. Alphonsus, where he helped win the state championship in1965. He graduated from college with a degree in anthropology from the University of North Dakota. The state of North Dakota at the time of Hiltner's college career had a population of about 600,000, and since then the state has suffered out-migration down to 500,000.
His father, a farmer, was a Pacific-theater Marine in WWII, coming home with a personal history of the battle for Iwo Jima.
Hiltner also joined the Marines. He graduated from Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., and he trained as a pilot in Pensacola, Fla. He worked his way to flying A-4 jets, earning his wings in Beeville, Texas. Through it all, Hiltner was famous in the corps as one of their star softball pitchers, a consistent winner.
Out of the Marine Corps, he worked as a stockbroker in Columbia as he shopped for a business. He found his opportunity in Saluda Avenue Wine & Liquor, with That Place Party Shop attached, in August 1977. In March 1979, The Gourmet Shop began business on the same row of shops along Saluda Avenue, but Hiltner shifted and expanded until he got it right by 1998, where he is today.
His first manager was Linda, his wife. They have a son, an electrical engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., near Albany. He swims both the butterfly and the breast stroke with the varsity team at RPI.
Hiltner meets occasionally with his friends, the fellow merchants and restaurateurs of Five Points, as they direct the street improvements under way. They began their campaign for an improved physical plant with the fountain at the corner of Greene and Saluda, which took five years and matching funds of $200,000.
Concerning the current interruptions, they have nothing but praise for David Jordan and his construction company, LJ. There are delays, sure, but obviously there are streets on the upgrade and businesses on the upswing, all anticipating completion by the end of November.
Also in the works is an additional storm drain connecting to the back of Maxcy Gregg Park.
Looking further to the future, Hiltner is particularly proud of the master plan for Five Points, the strategic urban design by architect Doug Quackenbush and the Five Points Merchants Association and the City of Columbia. There will be more density and more parking, to include more retail and more residential - in other words, more Five Points to come after the current construction concludes in November.
The Columbia Star is published, officially, on Friday each week, but distribution starts Thursday morning. If this article is read Thursday, do try to make it over to the Blossom Street lobby at Carolina First this Thursday afternoon, June 22, at 6:30 for Paint Five Points. It's an art auction and a champagne reception, and Hiltner is one of the hosts.