Our good friend Christy Hopkins jumped into the world of entrepreneurship in 2022 by taking over her hometown newspaper, the Greeley County Republican, in Tribune, Kansas. We were honored to be included in her January 5th editorial and this piece recapping the Kansas Rural Prosperity Summit in Wichita this fall. Thank you Christy for your support and example that rural is worthy of investment in the next generation!
From the editor’s desk…
Months ago, I promised I would share some thoughts on Courtland and how it epitomizes the idea that big dreams grow in small towns.
Thanks for your patience. You’ll find some reflections here, as well as another story on page 4 that includes insight from my friend and Courtland business owner, Luke Mahin.
There are places you visit once and you put a check mark on the list – been there, done that. Then there are places that you return to time and again, observing different traits and learning new lessons with each visit.
Courtland is the latter; it keeps calling me back.
Nestled just south of Kansas’ Highway 36, between Mankato and Belleville, this town of 294 dreams seemingly impossible dreams and its residents breathe them to life with ambition, hard work, optimism, and a charming ingenuity that all Kansans can emulate.
My first visits were for Courtland Fun Day, a three-day festival that offers something for everyone. I’d never watched a stick horse rodeo or cheered on competitors in a bracketed Rock, Paper, and Scissors contest before. We skipped the sand volleyball tournament, but witnessed the pit chicken bonanza from local volunteers.
The Saturday night concert shuts down the street as a well-known red dirt band climbs on the stage after local acts warm up the crowd across the street from a well-stocked beer garden.
It’s rural Kansas, so yes, it feels a bit like home. Yet, we were outsiders…outsiders who were welcome.
After the music ended and the crowd cleared, we sat with friends Nick Levendofsky and Julie Roller Weeks on the street until 2 a.m., basking in the quiet night and talking about life.
We’ve attended another Courtland Fun Day since. Even though we went back to our AirBnB when it started raining – our poor decision – the band and the fun played on.
The event is made possible by a number of sponsors, mostly $125 or less at a time. Many of those individuals who step in to support the event financially also take on a leadership role, managing an event, helping set-up or tear down, or pulling a shift at the daylong beer garden.
If you get a chance, go. It’s a great time. It’s a bit like fair is for us – the time of year when everyone is drawn home and other activities largely cease.
Allison Thon and I’s most recent trip, which we slipped in mid-September, was singularly focused: we wanted to go to our friends’ Luke and Jennifer Mahin’s new brewery, Irrigation Ales.
Luke and I grew to know each other first through the Kansas Sampler Foundation and then as colleagues in the economic development world.
Each representing undeniably rural counties in a world that often considers anything under 50,000 in population meeting the definition, we became trusted allies that sat on the same panels, shared testimony on the same bills, and bounced ideas off each other.
We probably worked together most on the Rural Opportunity Zone program; we both could well document the impact it was having on people’s lives in our respective communities.
Nearly five years earlier, Luke and his dad had begun the Courtland Fermentation Club, providing an opportunity for locals to learn more about brewing and to share their creations. On a previous trip, Luke pointed out the building he and his dad hoped to renovate. It was the old senior center, which had been shut down earlier.
When Allison and I walked into Irrigation Ales that Saturday night, it seemed like any hint of the building’s previous life was gone. In its place was a modern, trendy space that embraces and enhances the community’s story and its reliance on the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District and the Republican River.
When Luke showed us the back, we found that his mix tanks were old repurposed milk tanks from small dairies that had closed in the community. His cold storage was an old reefer trailer that had been retrofitted to properly store the various beers they had made, which included Scandiego, Dunkel Cold Medina, Rye Charles, and 148-Orade when we were there.
Friends and family had helped along the way, lending a hand with renovations and welding, gifting a milk tank and art for the brewery.
It was a dream five years in the making. And because Luke and Jennifer kept chiseling away at the building, figuring out the licensing, finding ways to make their vision a reality, leading the charge to remove the county’s 30% food requirement, and dreaming big dreams and taking steps to make their dreams come true, their brewery is thriving and now serves as Luke’s full-time job.
I’ve heard Luke share several times Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation’s concept that “capital – both human and financial – flows to positivity and optimism.”
He and Jennifer, who is a K-5 STEM/Tech integration specialist at Republic County Elementary in Belleville, have created a business that embraces fun, optimism, and provides an essential third place (a location away from home and work) for people to gather.
The Mahins are far from the lone innovators on Main Street. Their two-block strip also boasts Adri’s Restaurant (formerly Pinky’s), Soul Sisters Ceramics, JenRus Freelance which includes a co-working space, and an upscale hunting lodge/ AirBnB, all of which are contributing to creating a vibrant, active, thriving small town. The businesses promote and support one another – Irrigation Ales doesn’t serve food, but encourages customers to bring in their meals from Adri’s or other nearby eateries.
One might argue that there’s something in the water, and certainly, water drives much of the community’s heritage.
Yet, I see the town’s success as driven by sheer determination, hard work, and an understanding that we are responsible for creating the world we want to call home.
They’re not opposed to taking risks or stepping out to experiment with ideas some might say are impossible. They’re not doing it for the visitors (though they welcome them and treat them splendidly when they arrive) or for the accolades (though they’re richly-deserved and are found in publications and podcasts across the state and nation); they’re building the place they want to live.
The men and women of Courtland aren’t waiting for someone to save them. They’re doing it themselves and they’re showing Kansas just how well it can be done.
Successful communities define rural swagger
By Shauna Rumbaugh
Reprinted with permission from the High Plains Journal
During the recent Kansas Rural Prosperity Summit, Kansas Sampler Foundation Executive Director Marci Penner moderated a Rural Community Success Spotlight panel highlighting towns with swagger.
Featured were panelists Luke Mahin, Courtland, Kansas; Paul Cloutier, Humboldt, Kansas; Jarrod McCartney, Red Cloud, Nebraska; and Tammy Bruckerhoff, Hermann, Missouri.
Penner kicked off the panel discussion by asking the panelists why their successful towns have rural swagger.
“If you’ve got that swagger, I’m pretty sure that young people and everybody are going to want to be part of that,” Penner said, who noted that Beth Barlow coined the term for a Kansas Sampler Foundation event this summer in Humboldt.
Cloutier, a designer and entrepreneur who helped found the development organization A Bolder Humboldt, said swagger is a great word. “It sort of connotes this idea of action, of having confidence and hope and optimism. All of those words we don’t really associate with rural communities anymore, as some of those things have been lost.” The New York Times featured Humboldt in a 2022 travel list earlier this year because of its efforts to revitalize the community.
“In Humboldt, a lot of our goal has been to recreate this sense of energy and possibility that things can happen.” Cloutier said it’s important to consider why people move away and why they come back, especially young people.
Red Cloud is the childhood home of Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Willa Cather. McCartney said, “I think our downtown is what gives us swagger—something that really shines brightly to visitors we have.” He explained Red Cloud is restoring historic buildings downtown with the help of the Cather Foundation, which he said has invested close to $20 million for the effort.
Bruckerhoff acknowledged that Hermann’s ideal location in wine country gives the town an advantage in attracting tourists. “What we’ve found is people want to come to Hermann to get away from Kansas City or to get away from St. Louis, and it is worth the drive,” she said. The town has continued to add additional businesses and attractions to support the increased tourism.
“We have a whole surge of young entrepreneurs that came as visitors but now they’ve started businesses.” She said their biggest problem now is that there are no longer any businesses available for sale in their downtown.
Mahin, who is Courtland’s former economic development director, owns Irrigation Ales, a brewery he started with his wife. “Now it’s a new world, getting to really feel that stress of businesses that I helped and understand what they go through as a business owner.”
He said those businesses are what gives Courtland swagger despite its small size. Most towns of fewer than 300 people don’t have a retail boutique, a paintyour-own pottery studio, a pheasant farm, a commodity brokerage, co-working space, salons, Airbnb rentals, a restaurant, a health and wellness center and a microbrewery, but Courtland has all these businesses and more.
“That’s on top of the entities we already had like the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District that generates a lot of income for our area to keep our towns viable,” he said.
The panelists shared some of the roadblocks and growing pains their towns have faced and how they meet those challenges. They also shared stories of how their communities sparked the changes that led to success.
Advice to move rural towns forward
Penner asked the panelists to share what advice they have to help other communities move forward.
Mahin shared an idea by Jeff Yost with the Nebraska Community Foundation that capital—whether human or financial—flows to positivity and optimism. Mahin explained if you can’t gain momentum and get positivity and optimism going, “nobody is going to invest in your town and nobody is going to want to help.” He also encouraged towns to talk to new community members and get them involved in something.
“Community partnerships have been instrumental in making Hermann successful,” Bruckerhoff said. “The No. 1 setback we sometimes have is ourselves, so don’t be afraid to reach out and be creative about new ways to get help.” That may mean outsourcing some of the services the city needs and using resources outside of your office to make your product and the town better.
Cloutier encouraged rural towns to design what they want and be a bit selfish about creating a town you want to live in. “Think about what you need and be passionate about it because that’s what you will connect with and continue to have energy for.” That will help you keep going on the bad days when you wonder if it’s worth all the hard work, he said.
McCartney said, “Don’t take negativity personally.” There will always be social media trolls and others who have nothing good to say about change. He encouraged stakeholders to keep making partnerships and collaborating with people who share that vision.
“Good enough is not necessarily good enough.” He shared a story of when Red Cloud began a project to build a child development center. One local contractor they asked to work on the project turned it down because he felt the plans were “too good for Red Cloud.” McCartney said the team didn’t take that negative sentiment to heart and moved on with the bold plan. The town continues striving to make Red Cloud the best place that it can possibly be.
“I think we need to be proud of who we are. I think we need to understand what it is that makes us unique and great in our rural communities—and be out there and talk about it, be loud and proud about it,” Cloutier said.
Penner concluded the panel discussion by encouraging people to reach out to one another and take advantage of the resources and skills others can offer.
“Networking is the ultimate answer, but to make networking work we need to know each other.”
Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.