Opinion: Heartland microbreweries show the power of people

Heartland microbreweries show how small businesses are shaping shared prosperity

The building next to the post office on Main Street in Courtland, Kansas — population nearly 300 — once housed the senior center. It is now home to Irrigation Ales, a brewery that serves six craft beers in north-central Kansas.

Seniors are always welcome at Luke and Jennifer Mahin’s establishment. But the bright, warm interior, with irrigation-themed murals, and tasty beer will appeal to people of all ages. (For non-drinkers, homemade root beer
is an option.)

I visited Irrigation Ales just a day after its crowded grand opening in February. Entrepreneurs like the Mahins have been on my mind ever since, especially after the Kansas Leadership Centerr visited small and medium-sized communities in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri this spring to learn about their economic and community challenges.

The Mahin are not only good at making beer. They are creative business owners who brew in modernized dairy tanks. They are also community builders who worked with the Republic County Commission and voters themselves to repeal a requirement that establishments serving alcohol must make at least 30% of their sales in food.

This allows the brewery to focus on making beer. It can support rather than compete with nearby restaurants. And because the change paves the way for other new businesses to start, it could also help others.

Irrigation Ales seems to be part of a larger movement. Entrepreneurship is much more than brewing beer. But more and more companies are producing quality products and ambience for big cities while staying true to their roots. Along with businesses such as bookstores and cafes, they play a key role in fostering community ties.

You can see it on Ladybug Brewing in Winfield, where Kaydee and Laura Riggs-Johnson have transformed a gas station-auto repair shop that now caters to both cyclists and socializers on a hot Saturday afternoon. During a visit to Knoxville, Iowa, I met Megan McKay, the founder and CEO of Peace Tree Brewery. She launched the first 100% female-owned brewery in Iowa in 2009 and built an award-winning business with regional distribution.

I visited Peace Tree’s original brewery and bar to hear from her and other community members about their challenges. I left with the feeling that while details like access to capital are important, the art of fostering vibrant and sustainable core economies is also about people.

The Mahins were well placed to take the plunge. Because Luke served as a director of the Republic County Economic Development Corp., he says he knew many aspects of starting a business from working to build the ecosystem. And Kansas Networka non-profit organization that helps entrepreneurs, has helped the community expand its resource base to help youth and adults with everything from developing business plans to securing financing additoinal.

More communities need ways to encourage, support and retain their residents. They must work together to solve common problems. Many places don’t just need more businesses. They need collaborative efforts to break down barriers to entrepreneurship. The ultimate goal is a culture where people recognize the value of their communities and see a way to help them thrive.

Your community may not need a brewery, cafe, or bookstore. But he almost certainly needs more risk takers like the Mahins who are willing to invest in their dreams. The prosperity of communities in our region over the next decade could depend significantly on improving our ability to create healthy climates where this can happen.

Chris Green is the editor of The Journal, the print and digital civic issues magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center. Over the past nine years, he has built the Journal into a national award-winning publication. Photo of Luke Mahin for this story courtesy of Sarah Green, his wife.

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A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at KLC Store Where subscribe to the print edition.

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