Atchison, Kansas, population 11,000, has some of the same challenges facing other small towns around the country: They've had a hard time keeping businesses, retaining jobs and attracting young people.
But one thing that feels different here is their economic struggles feel linked to the town's rich history as a 19th century gateway to the west.
I met Jeff Boldridge at Paolucci’s restaurant, a family owned place just off the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge into Atchison. It’s the place to get breakfast, so Boldridge and I both ordered the morning special: eggs, bacon and toast.
At 30, Boldridge is a big guy — he played high school football — but he has a youthful look. He’s got a cap of black curly hair and a substantial five o’clock shadow. He’s just off a 12-hour shift with Nestle Purina Petcare Company in St. Joseph, where he makes dog food.
"[It's] kind of boring at times," he says," but there's really nothing around here anymore for me."
Boldridge, like hundreds of Atchison workers, has had to find a job outside of town. The decline in the manufacturing sector has meant jobs have dried up.
Right out of school, Boldridge spent six months working on a conveyor belt at Bradken Engineered Products. The company began as the Atchison Foundry in 1872 making parts for train cars. In its heyday, there were three shifts and the plant ran 24/7.
Today there’s one shift Monday thru Friday and Bradken is a global operation.
Boldridge’s next job was with Northwest Pipe Company, which made steel pipes for oil and gas. He was hired, fired and rehired with fluctuations in the price of oil until, finally, the place shut down for good.
"In January of 2016, everybody got the boot," Boldridge chuckles. "Everybody."
While most of Kansas is focused on agriculture, manufacturing has long been an economic driver here. But the second largest industry in town is education.
Benedictine College rests above the town on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The college was started by the Benedictine order in the mid-19th century. One of the oldest Benedictine abbeys overlooks the campus.
The school struggled during the 1970s and '80s. Aggressive marketing and a campus-wide facelift have created a building renaissance. Enrollment has tripled in the last several decades, adding juice to the local economy, says Benedictine marketing director Steve Johnson.
"Students [are] spending money in local stores, parents come into town and stay in hotels and go to restaurants," Johnson says. "Add to that all the construction we’ve been doing and [we're] a huge boost to the economy."
There are other bright spots on the economy as well.
Driving out of Atchison, a behemoth factory looms on the skyline — metal columns, cylinders and boxy buildings. It’s the MGP Ingredients, Inc. distillery. It looks like an oversized version of a kid's toy with geometric shapes that snap together.
MGP was once the largest provider of industrial alcohol for fuel during World War II. It was started by the Atchison-based Cray family, still pillars of the community and who still have a majority share. MGP has added a plant in Indiana and expanded into wheat-based food supplements.
But the company is known for booze, both gin and vodka made from corn.
The company also has a signature premium drink made strictly and totally from Kansas hard red winter wheat called Till American Wheat Vodka.
MGP president and CEO Gus Griffin can barely contain his pride as he talks about the Norman Rockwell-esque values attached to Till Vodka and, by extension, to MGP.
"Trust, integrity, honesty, hard work — things that are symbolic with the Midwest," he says.
This description is important for a couple of reasons. First, Gus Griffin isn’t even from the Midwest. He grew up in Pennsylvania. He was brought in to grow the company in part by promoting the heartland values it represents — and it’s working. The company quadrupled its operating income in the first year of Griffin’s strategic plan.
Today, 220 people work here, and Griffin says the company plans to add more jobs soon.
The success of MGP, Griffin says, is directly tied to the ethos of Atchison.
"I think it’s a small town. I think it’s the family background of the business And that everybody feels their efforts not only effect them and their neighbors, their families, but we’re all working for a common good."
Pretty much to a person, the people I met want to be here. They want to stay here and make Atchison better.
But how is Atchison really doing?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Boosters will point to the new Holiday Inn Express under construction and the new YMCA downtown. I heard many times about the growth of Benedictine College and how investors are turning obsolete factories and declining businesses into niche markets.
But Atchison still has a six percent unemployment rate, two points higher than the rest of Kansas. The future of some of the largest employers remains uncertain.
So it’s probably most accurate to say Atchison is in transition – balancing the iconic identity it’s so connected to with the racing global marketplace that demands change.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.