Atchison, Kansas Residents Find Themselves In The Crosshairs Of Economic Change
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 chuckled. "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.
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.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.