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  • Stacie Schmidt

Progress Edition 7.4.24

Progress. It's a word often synonymous with advancement, forward movement, evolution, and growth. As I embark on my seventh year as Executive Director of Ellsworth County Economic Development, now known as GROW Ellsworth County, one constant element of progress stands out: cyclical change. Complacency is unacceptable, and for communities aspiring to distinguish themselves and become communities of the future, change is a constant necessity.

As I prepared this article for the Progress Edition, I reflected on the various elements of change and growth that pass through our office, driving progress in the communities of Ellsworth, Kanopolis, Lorraine, Wilson, and Holyrood. Over the past decade, the landscape of economic and community development has evolved significantly. What was once a singular focus on recruiting "big-fish" manufacturing has transformed into a multifaceted approach encompassing business retention, entrepreneurship, succession planning, tourism, and community development, and more. Economic drivers now emerge from multiple sources, and relying solely on manufacturing is counterproductive. Think of it as a puzzle where every piece is essential to complete the picture.

A significant piece of the progress puzzle that has flourished this year is succession planning. Over 50% of small business owners in Kansas are aged 51 and above. These dedicated individuals are starting to contemplate their transition plans and envision their retirement, often experiencing the bittersweet feeling of entrusting their businesses to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Their legacies and their shoes are hard to fill. In 2024, some local business owners realized that it wasn’t retirement calling their name, but rather new opportunities.

Successful transition plans in late 2023 and 2024 included Paden’s Place transforming into Ele’s Corner, Robson’s Card & Gift becoming Raised Rustic, and Petal Place and Wilson’s Stop 2 Shop transitioning to new ownership. Each of these transitions was unique and required various levels of support from Grow Ellsworth County. Importantly, these transitions occurred seamlessly without any business closures, which can result in a loss of momentum, trust, and customer base, making recovery difficult. These smooth transitions are crucial to maintaining our community's vibrancy.  As I write this article, there are three additional succession plans occurring, which we hope to close soon!  As with all projects, these are confidential in nature and now our story to tell, so our lips are sealed as we navigate the individual business transitions!

If you're considering succession planning (and it’s never too early to start), Grow Ellsworth County can be your guide! Here are a few tips to begin with: Be realistic about the true value of your business; maintain accurate financial reports, such as profit and loss statements, using accounting software like QuickBooks; and ensure your financial statements are clean and precise. Avoid "hiding" profits by inflating expenses or running personal expenditures through the business to dodge taxes, as this can negatively impact your future transition.

The "downtown shuffle" in Ellsworth was alive and well, serving as yet another sign of our community’s vibrancy. While the closure of our cornerstone law office was a significant loss to our professional services, it also opened new opportunities for an expanding business and created new office suites to support early-stage ventures not quite ready for a full brick-and-mortar presence. The shuffle also facilitated expansion for Reliant Roofing, SLM Investments, and High Jinks Rec Club, while the former offices of Mosaic found a more efficient location. Vacant buildings are the bane of any economic developer's office, so we continually seek solutions for any vacancies. Entrepreneurs, we are calling for you! If you have a dream, let us help you bring it to life!

Another substantial piece of the progress puzzle is tourism. Here, we must give a special shout-out to our friends in Wilson, Holyrood, and Kanopolis.

Wilson is soaring in tourism opportunities, capitalizing on its Czech heritage, effective destination marketing, and a keen understanding of their audience. A notable project is the renovation of the former Opera House, which will transition into an open-air theater, complementing the World’s Largest Hand-Painted Czech Egg next door. Steel bracing is in the final stages of installation, soon enabling the Opera House to host events and welcome visitors among its impressive limestone walls.  Also notable is the development of Wilson’s amazing Betty Kepka museum, the co-work space, and the commendable and massive progress of the Atlas Ad Astra Missile Sole, who shuttled hundreds of visitors through the silo during the Big Kansas Road Trip, and most recently announced yet another substantial grant to continue the momentum!

Holyrood showcased its pride and sense of community during the Big Kansas Road Trip, highlighting their true sense of collaboration and unity. This event breathed new life into Holyrood, positioning it as a tourist destination and inspiring new ways to carry the spirit of the Big Kansas Road Trip into the future.

Kanopolis also shone during the Big Kansas Road Trip, taking pride in its appearance and impressing visitors. The Kanopolis Drive-In and Fort Harker continue to be cherished gems, promoting pride and drawing attention to our county.

These communities exemplify how tourism can drive progress, and we look forward to seeing even more growth and innovation in the coming years.

The progress puzzle continues with entrepreneurship. Passion comes to life with entrepreneurs, and business thrives when entrepreneurship and solvency meet. Meeting inspiring entrepreneurs (many of whom don’t even label themselves as such, but they are!) is a motivating part of our mission. Building future entrepreneurs through early-stage programs like the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and even younger entrepreneurs through Lemonade Day ensures that tomorrow’s business owners will be well-rounded and prepared for future succession opportunities.

If you have never attended the public portion of the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, mark your calendar for next year. It's inspiring to meet future business leaders like the Donley Brothers, Layton Leiker, and Josie Kueser (to name a few of our state winners!). And if you missed our first-ever Lemonade Day last year, be sure to support our young entrepreneurs downtown on Saturday, August 3, from 10 AM to 2 PM. Your encouragement helps shape the business landscape of tomorrow.

The final piece of the progress puzzle I will address in this article is community development—a truly monumental component. Community development encompasses all those intangible elements that make a community special and a desirable place to live. It involves shaping and nurturing the non-profit sector through grant support, offering professional and personal development through our passionately delivered leadership curriculum, and being an active voice at the table (and sometimes a quiet whisper in the background) in the cultural fabric of our communities. It also means marketing the community at large through “big picture” events such as the Big Kansas Road Trip, KSN Summer Road Show, and Biking Across Kansas, which serve as springboards for growth and future residents and business owners. Someone has to be behind these events to plan, organize, market, coordinate volunteers, and present our community in the best possible light, planting seeds of growth for the future. Often, that someone is Grow Ellsworth County. A rising tide lifts all ships, and this big-picture thinking sets a precedent for growth well into the future.

This work instills a sense of pride, fosters a positive attitude, and cultivates a collective desire for growth, even when it's easier to sit on the sidelines. Together, we are shaping the picture in the puzzle and becoming part of the solution.

We've started with four of the puzzle pieces that shape our community's progress. But this puzzle isn’t just a handful of pieces—it's more like 500. Many essential pieces haven't been named here, yet they are integral to the connectedness and growth of our community. Likewise, numerous entrepreneurs, businesses, and individuals aren’t mentioned, simply because there are too many to list. Each one plays a crucial role in our story.

Progress in today’s economy is tough, yet we continue to serve hundreds of clients who come to our office to be part of the future. We see all of you, and YOU are our future. Progress is bold, progress is challenging, and progress is happening in Ellsworth County.

Stacie Schmidt

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