Could more entrepreneurs help revive the heartland?

Could more entrepreneurs help revive the heartland?

For heartland communities hoping to thrive, encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs can energize the local economy. Places such as Ord, Nebraska, have emerged as regional poster children for economic development. Peers such as Council Grove in Kansas are seeing green shoots of their own. But such shifts can be difficult to make, and there isn’t a tried and true formula that works everywhere. To figure out what works, communities have to develop their own combination of tactics and be willing to push until they find their version of success. With 15 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors to Council Grove, such as Barbara Worley of Olathe and daughters Mila and Eloisa, might be forgiven if they expect to see a town tightly tethered to its past. In fact, entrepreneurship isn’t just encouraged in the Morris County seat, it’s being cultivated. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle) All Bob and Christy Alexander had in mind was renting studio space in downtown Council Grove to expand a side hustle that was burgeoning into a small art business.

Then, with Bob branching out from stained glass into metalworks, the couple started to think about buying one of the many vacant, dilapidated buildings along Main Street. So they borrowed some money and set sail with no business plan and absolutely no idea about how to run a business.

Fourteen years later, Alexander ArtWorks is still going strong. Some townspeople hail the Alexanders as pioneers who paved the way for a Main Street rebound, but Christy rejects the label.

“Pioneer indicates something that is intentional,” she says. “We were never trying to start a renaissance or anything like that.”

Whatever the origins, the Alexanders sparked a momentum that helped this Flint Hills community of approximately 2,100 residents write its own playbook for rural revitalization. At a time when the story being told about our nation’s smaller communities is typically one of decline, disinvestment and a lack of innovation , Council Grove shows how entrepreneurs can energize an economy for the better by making it easier for residents, particularly younger generations, to start up their own business, and supporting them once they do.

But if you want more entrepreneurs in your community, how exactly do you get them? Because there doesn’t seem to be an exact formula that works for every community, and the answer can seem a bit mysterious at first.

Barriers vary widely from community to community, as the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal, learned during a recent Heartland Together listening tour about rural entrepreneurship through Kansas, Missouri Nebraska and Iowa. (The tour was part of a $150,000 grant to KLC from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. This story was produced independently of the tour.)

In some places, tour facilitators learned, it can be hard for business owners to secure a downtown storefront because of decaying buildings and absentee landlords. In others, the challenge is getting workers who can secure a job with salary and benefits at the local manufacturing plant to see starting their own business as an attractive alternative. Natural disasters, changing demographics, conflict between established residents and community disruptors, and wariness about communities aiming too high can all complicate the equation.

However, by looking at communities such as Council Grove, and Ord, Nebraska – a similarly sized community that is being touted by its advocates as a regional example of rural resurgence – patterns emerge that show a community’s path to forging a more shared mindset about growth and entrepreneurship.

One is the importance of building upon a foundation of young talent and finding ways to support their ventures, through both financial programs and community loyalty. Caleb Pollard and his partners in Ord’s Scratchtown Brewing Co., one of a number of entrepreneurial ventures that have been popping up in the central Nebraska community of about 2,000 people, like to call it “positive transformation through fermentation.”

Other trends include a willingness to preserve what’s most essential about a community’s past by trying new things to help secure its future, whether that be by embracing immigrants or by nurturing entrepreneurism in schools.

But such shifts aren’t necessarily easy to make quickly. Downtown Alma, which is about 40 miles northeast of Council Grove in neighboring Wabaunsee County, is also showing signs of life. But community attitudes have tended to be more cautious about change than in Morris County.

Part of the reason is that Wabaunsee County is a county of small towns with strong individual identities and different regional loyalties scattered across multiple political jurisdictions. Collaboration on economic development there requires working […]

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