Melinda Pregont operates a gallery and small fair trade and local artisan shop in downtown Atchison.
Millennials returning to their hometown of Atchison, Kansas, are investing in its success and working with the community to revitalize small-town life.
Justin Pregont is eager to show off his town to visitors, and quickly navigates downtown streets surrounding the city building where he works, in spite of the slow but steady stream of traffic. He grew up here in Atchison, Kansas, and after a time away earning his master’s degree at the University of Kansas and working in a suburb of Kansas City, he returned. He’s now the assistant city manager and raising his family in the northeast Kansas town of 11,000.
While he was pleased to return, his wife Melinda Pregont, freely admits that moving back to Atchison was not an easy decision to make. “I really wanted to stay in Kansas City,” she said. “It was very challenging for me to come back here.”
Melinda, a chiropractor and entrepreneur, attended high school and college in Atchison, but moved to Kansas City for a degree in chiropractic. She said she’d grown used to living near a Trader Joe’s and having her pick of a hundred restaurants.
But for her, returning home was an obligation. She’d earned her first degree on a full-ride scholarship to Benedictine College with the Atchison Leaders’ Scholarship through the Atchison Community Educational Foundation. The scholarship is awarded to minorities – Melinda identifies as black or mixed ethnicity. The town, surrounded by countryside, is like many small, American cities in its desire to keep or attract young people, and a stipulation of the scholarship was that Melinda live and work in Atchison for at least two years.
So, just three months after graduating from Cleveland Chiropractic, she returned to Atchison and opened her own practice. Pregont followed her and soon found a job with the city – in public works before he was the assistant city manager.
And what they found in Atchison was a surprise, at least to Melinda. As an entrepreneur, and in her role as a volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters, she saw that the work she did made a big difference in the lives of her neighbors very quickly.
“Being able to see the fruits of my labor gave me purpose. Being in a small town, I feel like you can create greater change, and you see it faster,” she said.
In a book called The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call what Melinda has been a part of a “collaborative ecosystem,” a way of solving problems at a city and county level. In smaller governmental or community systems change is able to happen quickly and is more likely to be just what an area needs in contrast to when outside forces attempt to solve a challenge.
A study by RCLCO real estate advisors also bears out Melinda’s experience. As reported in a Time magazine article, the study shows that the majority of relative growth in smaller cities is in the 25- to 34-year-old age group. In addition to noticing her own satisfaction with living in Atchison increase as she contributed more, she said she’s hearing from old friends who’ve moved away that they’re impressed by social media posts about the city and are considering moving back.
Six years after their move, the Pregonts are still in Atchison and are embracing the opportunities offered by their small town. She carved out a niche for herself by offering acupuncture and specializing in pregnancy and pediatric care, now serves on Atchison Hospital’s board of directors, and she owns and operates an art gallery that includes two downtown housing units.
As assistant city manager, Pregont seems to know everyone in town. Walking through downtown, he explained that Atchison is the second oldest city in Kansas with the most historically registered properties per capita. He’s seeing an uptick in new businesses recently, thanks to groups like NetWork Kansas that supports business owners and helps with gap financing. But that uptick has also been driven by the city itself, which offers an entire website of business development resources to find funding, hire interns, get training, and just about every kind of support an entrepreneur might need for success.
But, he said, business development has always been tricky in Atchison. Fifty years ago, retail did better in Atchison than it does now; these days, he said, residents don’t feel like it’s a big deal to drive 45 minutes to one of several shopping centers on the weekend, and Atchison can’t come close to offering as much retail in one place as a bigger-city mall does.
D.J. Bruce co-owns Willie’s Sports Pub. He added a pork tenderloin to his menu after figuring out how to outdo the competition’s.
So, the convenience of that drive is a double-edged sword as far as he’s concerned. More people are willing to live in a sleepy, small town because they know they can drive to a metropolitan area for what they want, and that’s good in way. But, because of that, retailers have trouble getting traction.
Restaurants and movie theaters are a different story, though. Pregont said the town has about 18 restaurants, including Willie’s Sports Pub, which is where he’s headed just before the lunch rush.
One of Willie’s co-owners, D.J. Bruce, also returned to Atchison – but after a much longer absence than the Pregonts.
Bruce was also born and raised in Atchison and started school at Benedictine College before transferring to the much larger Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He stayed for 16 years, finishing his education, getting married and beginning a family, and starting the first Willie’s.
Then about a decade ago, he and his wife’s desire to be closer to both sets of grandparents grew and they moved home. He imagined a life with more family, and maybe a little less work; he thought that in tiny Atchison he would no longer rack up 70 hours a week at the restaurant.
Bruce said he felt confident going into business in Atchison, because he co-owned another Willie’s in similarly-sized El Dorado, Kansas. “We knew what we were up against, because we’d already been in El Dorado with almost the exact same demographic, and knew we had to wear many hats. We had to offer a menu from 4 years old to 94 years old that there’s something on it for everyone,” Bruce said.
And though Bruce was prepared as far as his business operations went, he was surprised by the town’s response.
“We opened up here and found out that it was needed more than we anticipated, so for about the first year and a half, I worked as much here as I did in Manhattan,” he said.
Atchison is not even a quarter of the size of Manhattan. All the same, “We eclipsed the Manhattan numbers in the second year we were open, and it’s continuing to grow about 10% every year.”
He said Willie’s has played more parts in people’s lives than he can explain.
“It’s a place kids take their dates for homecoming. We’re a place to celebrate birthday parties.” And, Bruce said, on the opposite end of that, local businesspeople hold meetings around his tables. Additionally, “We’re the spot where everyone comes after high school football games, Benedictine games, and after funerals.”
Justin Pregont is the assistant city manager of Atchison, Kansas.
Pregont said a lot of Willie’s success, as well as the success of other businesses in town, has to do with Benedictine College. He said that in 20 years the college has grown from a student body of about 750 to more than 2,000.
“We can’t talk about the economic development situation here without talking about Benedictine. They are probably more responsible for the successes that we’ve seen recently, just in their student population growth,” Pregont said.
Bruce agrees. In addition to the good business the college brings, he also hires a lot of its students. Willie’s employs about 62 people altogether, which sounds like a lot, but only eight or 10 employees work full time.
Labor is a big challenge in Atchison, Bruce said, and he often has to be creative with staffing. Benedictine students must live on campus until they’re seniors, so when the college closes for holidays and breaks, all of those employees disappear back to their homes of origin. But high school students and adults looking for supplemental work are often available, like mothers who want a couple shifts while their children are in school.
Bruce said he feels the town’s support.
Pregont said supporting entrepreneurs in any way they need is one of the components of Atchison’s economic development strategy. Willie’s hasn’t needed much in the way of financial or technical support, but Pregont said the city has supported entrepreneurs in the past by putting in fiber optic cable and pointing them in the direction of capital.
Another component of that strategy is helping to bring life back to downtown, Pregont said.
“We prioritize infrastructure investments, streetscapes, street trees, walkability, trails, all that kind of stuff, and we try to do that downtown,” he said.
Bruce confirms those investments are making a huge difference in commuters’ attitude toward the town. “Let’s say there’s professors at Benedictine that live in Kansas City, or live in Platte City, and they choose those towns because Atchison just didn’t offer enough. They’re hanging around or looking to live here now,” Bruce said.
Livability.com tracks what Millennials look for in a town. A feature story on five small cities that have seen an influx of young people cites several reasons for the attraction, including lower cost of living, easier commutes, safer environments, and downtown revitalization efforts that have created both walkability and green spaces – exactly what’s happening in Atchison.
Downtown’s revitalization continued with the addition of a first-run movie theater earlier this year. Atchison hadn’t had one since 2011.
Pregont said that putting in a theater was a real community effort. They knew there was no way it would work as a for-profit – the town is just too small – but the people of Atchison really wanted a local venue.
Travis Grossman is the executive director of Theatre Atchison. “It used to be – and people are still learning – that when they’d see a movie they’d have to think, ‘Okay, what weekend can we go, because we’ve got to figure out what Saturday we can get down there, and do we need to do any shopping?’ Now they can come on a Wednesday night and watch a show.”
Travis Grossman, executive director of Theatre Atchison, in front of one of the new theater’s two screens. Each house seats 110 movie-goers.
City leaders understood that when people travelled outside of town for a movie, that also meant a meal out and shopping – all dollars that were leaving Atchison. It especially galled Grossman that a lot of those dollars were going to North Kansas City, which is in Missouri, and so were not just living his city, but his state.
Pregont explained, “Theater Atchison is our local non-profit performing arts theater. I sit on their board of directors, so Travis [Grossman] and I got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s figure out a way to make a world-class, first-run movie theater experience in downtown Atchison.'”
In the early stages of determining how they could achieve the goal of remodeling the theater, Pregont called Kansas City-area theaters for ideas, and everyone told him modernizing would simply be too expensive. And that was back when he, Grossman, and other leaders thought they’d only need $800,000 to get the job done; the 1993 remodel had cost $390,000.
But, after speaking to engineering firms about doing the job right, the estimate skyrocketed to $2.5 million. Grossman said that even if business was great, they’d only be able to retire $100,000 of debt each year – no five to 10-year plan could ever make the math work.
Theatre Atchison’s board of directors voted unanimously to find a way, however, and five board members started looking for funding. Within a year, they had raised all but $150,000.
Pregont said that a third of the project’s capital came from tax credits: community service tax credits and state historic tax credits. Another third was contributions from major foundations. The final third was more personal and came from businesses, individuals, and grassroots support in contributions ranging from $5 to $380,000.
Though the movie theater is a nonprofit, it still pays property tax, but for an investment of this size Atchison and the state of Kansas have a robust neighborhood revitalization property tax rebate and the theater will see a 95% rebate on property tax for 10 years.
The theater board figured the theater would cater to about 30,000 people in three counties, and already between their opening in March through this fall they’ve seen 18,000 customers.
Grossman said all the work was well worth it. “Every time somebody new comes to the theater – and I’m running into people who haven’t seen the theater yet – they’ll comment on Facebook, ‘What a beautiful theater,’ ‘I can’t believe it,’ ‘How proud we are,’ ‘‘What a great accomplishment.'”
Invested in success
Melinda said that being able to make an impact like that seems to her to be a hallmark of small-town life. Once she moved beyond feeling dismayed at losing proximity to her favorite big-city stores and restaurants and threw herself into her chiropractic practice and volunteering, she started to see Atchison through the eyes of someone who was invested in the town’s success.
Over many conversations, she and husband Justin concluded that, “In order to have a thriving town, you have to have a thriving downtown. And so, the best way to have people in your downtown is to have them living there,” she said.
She bought a building in the heart of downtown Atchison that she knew could be used as two housing units. Then she just had to decide what to put in the downstairs storefront: something low-maintenance, with a low start-up cost, and very little money up front. “An art gallery was perfect. Look at the Crossroads District (in Kansas City, Missouri). When you have a thriving arts scene, you really begin to develop a culture…”
In 2018, the Red Light Gallery was born. She said that it’s the only commercial gallery in town and shows two regional artists at a time. She also maintains a small retail corner that sells crafts from eight non-profits both local and fair trade.
She thinks that being an active part of the community and quickly seeing positive change as a result of her own efforts has been intoxicating. She’s also seen that the more she volunteered, the less she felt like an outsider.
Most importantly, Melinda said she’s loved to learn how to drive change in Atchison. “You do one project and then it’s like, what’s the next project? You want to keep creating this change. You want to keep creating opportunity for more young professionals not to move.”
The Kauffman Foundation is focused on the factors that lead to vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems by doing occasional profiles on efforts in different communities to put entrepreneurship and inclusion at the heart of economic development. Learn more about our work – and how to work with us.