- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

HANSTON, Kan. (AP) - Jeff Holste might miss the Rocky Mountains, but he traded the view for Kansas life.

These days the civil engineer’s office is inside Elk Plaza, a local business incubator, in what was once the Hanston High School. He still works for the same firm, Wilson and Company, Inc. It’s far from a start-up business, but Holste needed office space - a professional location - so he could work for the multi-state engineering firm.

He pays $175 a month in rent to have his office. That includes all utilities, plus he has access to the school’s former board of education conference room, The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/1JkMgJJ ) reported.

Welcome to Elk Plaza, an innovative use of USD 228, which closed its doors in 2010 due to shrinking enrollment.

However, this tiny rural town of 280 residents was resilient. They accepted that their school was closing and found a way to keep the building as the gathering place it had always been in the community, which is located 11 miles east of Jetmore in Hodgeman County.

Walk through the doors today and the former administrative offices are now occupied by city hall. There are start-up businesses in many of the former classrooms, and even a preschool.

The newest addition inside the school is the Culinary Incubator at Elk Plaza. Housed in the former high school’s concession stand and adjoining home economics room, the licensed space can be rented for a half or full day for those entrepreneurs starting out in the retail and wholesale food business.

Tammy Ginther, who lives southeast of Kalvesta in neighboring Finney County, is scheduled to use the culinary incubator to make a surplus of her specialty condiments she sells through her business, Sandcreek Creations.

“This is going to allow me to make candied jalapenos and mustard legally,” said Ginther, who had been processing the food in a non-certified kitchen on her farm.

Like the other businesses in the building, the culinary incubator is dedicated to those who are in the early stages of business. Perhaps they are just beginning a catering business and need to rent the kitchen and prepare the meals. They can begin their business in the incubator and build from there.

“The capital investment in commercial kitchen equipment can be prohibitive for a new business,” said Lea Ann Seiler, director of Hodgeman County Economic Development. “Basically it’s a way to test the waters without taking on a lot of risk and debt. If you want to get in shape you join the gym, you don’t have to build your own. So if you want to build a food business, you can rent this fully-licensed commercial kitchen.”

There are special rates for lower energy users such as cake decorators, or those making dry mixes or hosting cooking demonstrations. Clients also have business technical assistance including marketing and retail bar-coding for their products “From the Land of Kansas.”

Perhaps a group of people need a lot of space to make enchiladas for a fundraiser, the culinary kitchen would be ideal says Seiler. Along with plenty of counter space there are two stoves and a three hole sink. The kitchen is also equipped with a refrigerator and freezer.

Those who rent the kitchen also have use of the commons area, which could come in handy for a cooking classes or serving a special meal, Seiler said.

Culinary incubators are popping up around Kansas. Seiler based the Hanston kitchen off of Kitchen 4 Hire in Salina.

When Hanston’s school closed Seiler drove across the state to see what happened to rural schools and the communities when their doors closed.

“The majority had broken out windows and goats running in and out of them,” Seiler said. “We just didn’t want that for our town.”

Because the building was relatively new, built in 1984, many residents hated to see it torn down. Marena Township put together a proposal and purchased the school for $1 in 2010. Then they auctioned off everything they wouldn’t need and raised money for the school’s “burial fund.”

“If the school would get to a point where it wasn’t being used, there’s enough money in an account to tear it down,” Seiler said. “People didn’t want to see an old, rundown building. If this idea doesn’t work, then that money will be used to demolish the school.”

But since 2010, small businesses have been renting space in the school. Pam Ruff has an embroidery business in the former sewing room, down the hall Rocking A Quilting operates in the math room and a graphic design company is situated where history was taught. There is also a hay dispatching business and the former school superintendent Mark Salmans has made the Vo-Ag building home to the national Ident-A-Kid program.

“These are homegrown people who saw opportunities,” Seiler said.

As she walked the quiet hallway, she ran into Matt Cure, who is renting the former science room for Amber Waves Studio, a local photography and publishing company. A 1991 graduate of Hanston High School, he was the class president, according to the graduates’ photos still hanging in the commons of the school.

“Everyone who graduated did well here,” Cure said. “It was a great upbringing.”

Along with many of the others, he left for college and headed to Colorado to begin his career in advertising. However, he decided to come back to be closer to family.

He’s involved with the family farm part time and is developing his photography business in the science room. In his new office space Cure can point to the spot where he was sitting when he heard the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Returning after 20 years from a more urban area he admits he’ll miss the amenities. But the Internet has made it easier.

“I don’t miss the traffic,” he said. “It takes a minute to get to work.”

Along with serving as economic development director, Seiler is the first lady of Hanston: Her husband Gary is the town’s mayor.

The couple came to Hanston 25 years ago when Gary accepted a teaching position. It’s where they are raising their family. Their youngest daughter is a cheerleader at Hodgeman County High School. Meanwhile Seiler is the cheerleader for the entire county.

“Lea Ann Seiler is the kingpin in Hodgeman County,” said Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. “She gets great things done. Lea Ann believes in the county, and it’s key to have somebody who has the energy to sustain the rural area.

“I really do think rural communities can survive with certain people leading the way.”

Stepping into the Culinary Incubator’s kitchen, Seiler pointed out how well set up the space was. For those who choose to rent the kitchen, they can have access to the copy machine in the city office. In the school’s gymnasium there is circuit training. And there’s even a yoga instructor, pluses not always found in a tiny hamlet.

Like Cure, Holste and his wife, Nancy Seib, made a conscious decision to move from Colorado to Hodgeman County where her parents farm. Holste helps out during harvest.

While he was lucky to find the office space, the couple couldn’t find a house in Hanston. They are now living 12 miles away in Burdett.

Meanwhile, his young son Cody, 6, attended “Little Tracks” preschool in a classroom beneath his office. A bonus was seeing his child during the day.

And, thanks to technology, he is able to dock his computer in this rural setting and check in weekly with Wilson and Company’s Salina ofice.

Holste said this type of arrangement only works with a company willing to go out on a limb.

Seiler said Holste is exactly the kind of person they want to attract.


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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