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Melinda and Justin Pregont

Community Leaders
Atchison, Kansas
Uncommon Voices 2020

Justin and Melinda Pregont
At home with the Pregonts

Melinda and Justin Pregont are community leaders in Atchison, Kansas. Justin is the assistant city manager, and Melinda owns a chiropractic practice as well as a gallery and boutique space. In 2020, they’ve managed businesses, applied for loans, worked to keep their small town’s entrepreneurial ecosystem going, marched for social justice, and had their second child.

Q: What sort of impact has the pandemic had on Atchison businesses?

Justin: It’s been really difficult. I think that the shrewdest businesses have been able to access a fair amount of CARES Act money, whether it’s through CDBG or Payment Protection or Sparks or whatever. But the ones who aren’t as savvy are struggling mightily. Anybody in restaurants, entertainment, retail is hurting. With the exception of maybe the hardware store and liquor stores, groceries are fine.

Q: When the pandemic hit, how did that affect your business?

Melinda: Honestly, had I not gotten any of the CARES Act money, I would be hurting a lot. I also had an EIDL loan – I got a little money from that – and then health and human services through Medicare, there was a little money through that as well. I’m going to end the year really not bad at all considering COVID.

We lobbied to be essential, and as an essential worker, I was able to stay open, but the massage therapist in my office, was a different story. She’s really been hurt, which then affects me, because I’m the person who takes in the rent. It’s difficult when you’re also the owner, because when you have independent contractors, or this boutique at Red Light Gallery, how do you make that work for these businesses?

Q: You added the boutique in October of 2019?

Melinda: Yes, it’s been awesome. Now the gallery is open more. They help sell my products and they help cover my mortgage with their rent. I know that they’re struggling, so it is finding that balance in rent. The boutique is called HC Style. It’s a couple of young girls in town, they just opened up in Weston as well, so they have a lot on their plate.

Q: What’s the conversation been like in Atchison about race?

Melinda: I personally was gravely affected by the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. I felt somewhat broken and helpless and didn’t know what to do. I’m a doer, so I want to fix everything. I don’t feel like I can fix things at a federal level or even a state level, but I really feel like I have influence at a local level. So, I wanted to become active within the Atchison United group.

I don’t feel like I can fix things at a federal level or even a state level, but I really feel like I have influence at a local level.

We put on a march after the George Floyd murder and were expecting 20 to 25 people to be at this march, and I remember pulling up to the park where we were meeting and there were cars and people everywhere. I remember sitting in the car and I started crying because of Atchison’s history with race, and there were so many people there, several hundred people from all walks of life.

Justin: Ultimately, that culminated in Atchison United presenting our city commission with a proposal to change a street name. There’s a street named Division, and they petitioned to change that to Unity.

Division was historically the edge of the original plat of what we call “Old Atchison.” It was the dividing line between the city and the county at one point, but over time along the Division St. is a property called the Lincoln School which was built in 1921 as a segregated Black high school. Atchison voted to integrate prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, but the area around that segregated Black high school became known as the “Black neighborhood” and a place where more poor people lived. It became a pretty charged issue. Our city commission voted unanimously to change the name.

Q: As we look for hope in the New Year, where do you see opportunities to rebuild society’s systems better?

Melinda: A lot is put on hold because of COVID, but one of Atchison United’s goals is to have a community gathering with our police officers and our community, specifically the Black community, to keep helping and improving relations between our police officers and our Black community specifically. Our police chief has been so open and so willing to work with us on any ideas. He welcomes the constructive criticism, he wants to know if they need to do better work on something from our point of view, then they’ll do something. We helped a local youth group put on a peaceful protest, a prayer outside of city hall, and after, the police officers knelt with them and people got up and kind of protested and spoke their peace, and the police officers just stood there and listened, which I had so much respect for.

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