There wasn’t much going on in downtown Lecompton when Jamin and Annette Nally opened Aunt Netters Cafe in June 2014.
Fast forward nearly four years and a resurgence on Elmore Street in downtown Lecompton is evident.
“When we opened, there was a hairdresser and that was it,” Jamin said. “It had been that way since the mid-'80s. Now there are five businesses and potential for another.”
Aunt Netters isn’t alone in spurring the renewal of interest in downtown Lecompton, but it is certainly part of it. Aunt Netters has three full-time and five part-time employees and had $240,000 in gross sales in 2017, Jamin said. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a variety of baked goods, including for delivery at special events.
“It’s become a spot people meet at,” he said. “You can walk in the door, see somebody you haven’t seen in a while and sit down and talk for 15 minutes.”
Crucial to the opening of the restaurant was a $25,000 loan that Jamin and Annette secured from Douglas County E-Community in the months before Aunt Netters served its first breakfast, Jamin said.
“We might have something, but it wouldn’t have been the restaurant as it is today without that loan,” he said. “We would not be as big and would not have as many options.”
Douglas County started its E-Community through NetWork Kansas in 2012 to help spur economic development in the county’s rural communities. In partnership with the Kansas Department of Commerce, NetWork Kansas made available tax credits, which when sold provided as much as $125,000 annually for E-Community revolving loans. The program has made a difference in Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton, said Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman.
“I think this is some of the most important work we are doing in Douglas County,” she said. “It’s helping people where they are.”
Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the Douglas County administrator, has managed the E-Community program since she joined the county staff in 2016. The Douglas County E-Community has provided 10 loans since its founding; five have been awarded to businesses in Baldwin City, four in Eudora and one to the Nallys in Lecompton, she said.
Mary Kirkendoll made use of an E-Community loan to open the Eudora Yoga Center, at 706 Main St. in Eudora, in August 2015.
“We could not have opened our building without it,” she said.
Since then, the Yoga Center has become the home of the Eudora Chamber of Commerce, for which she serves as project coordinator. She has recently added a senior center at the storefront.
The activities at her center and at the Wakarusa Brewery, 710 Main St., whose owners John Randtke and James Hightree also secured an E-Community loan, now fill downtown parking spaces on weekday evenings, Kirkendoll said.
In Baldwin City, an E-Community loan helped Lori Gardner open her Homestead Kitchen and Bakery in a long-empty storefront at 718 Eighth St. It is now a popular weekday breakfast and lunch spot, and Gardner said she has hired one full-time employee and nine part-timers at the restaurant, bakery and gift shop.
A total of $208,000 has been loaned to entrepreneurs in the three Douglas County communities, Jolicoeur said. Three of the loans have been paid back in full.
The revolving loans are meant to supplement a required bank loan with “gap funding,” Jolicoeur said. In addition, applicants are expected to provide some of their own financing, she said. Most of the Douglas County E-Community loans have had a 20-year repayment schedule with an average interest rate of 4.48 percent, she said.
NetWork Kansas has made 441 E-Community loans statewide totaling $12.7 million since the program started in 2007, said NetWork Kansas Vice President Erik Pedersen. That E-Community financing leveraged another $63 million in loans for economic development, he said.
Until this year, the Douglas County program’s ability to make loans each year was limited to the approximately $125,000 in its account from loan payments and the unallocated seed money from the sale of tax credits, Pedersen said.
This year, NetWork Kansas listed local E-Communities as either level 1 or level 2 based on their past history of activity, Pedersen said. The Douglas County E-Community and other more active level 1 programs were given the ability to make up to $250,000 in annual loans and allowed to make individual loans of as much as $75,000.
“We really value the Douglas County group,” he said. “They have done wonderful things.”
There’s a second local E-Community that aspires to achieve level 1. Adam Handshy, director of programs and business development for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said urban E-Community pilot programs were created in 2015 in Lawrence and Wichita. The Lawrence Metropolitan E-Community was first managed in Lawrence City Hall before it was transferred to the chamber and his management last year, he said. To date, it has only made one loan to acupuncturist Julie Johnson-Bear Don’t Walk.
Because of its lack of activity, the Lawrence Metropolitan E-Community is categorized as level 2 and can make individual loans of up to $45,000.
“We’re just now getting traction,” Handshy said. “We’d like to get up to level 1 so we have more leeway. We’re getting there. We’re certainly getting more interest.”