How to Make a Killing in Small Town America

Bringing small businesses back to small towns


Chuck Comeau took his high-fashion business home to Plainville, Kan.

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PLAINVILLE, KAN.— Strolling the main street of this rural town makes for a quiet walk. Closed stores suggest Plainville is caught in the spiral of lost jobs and residents that has desolated so many farm towns on the Great Plains.

But stop into a former Ford dealership at the far end. A lively office fills the cavernous space, decked with contemporary art and furniture. It all seems as out of place here as the hundred local jobs it has created, jobs in the high-fashion world of selling custom furniture and textiles to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Elton John.

In Plainville, a town of 2,000, Chuck Comeau knew he could overcome the problems he had in running his high-end business from Los Angeles. "The work ethic and loyalty here are amazing," he says. "People here just get along."

Now Comeau, 51, is trying to spread the word, aiding a nascent effort to bring small business back to small towns. It's part of a fledgling movement in rural America to emphasize homegrown entrepreneurs over imported factories. "The Toyota lottery doesn't work," says John Molinaro, a rural development expert at the Aspen Institute. So a number of states with declining rural populations have launched programs to encourage local start-ups, the kind with roots in their community.

Kansas, for one, recently allocated a few million dollars in the form of tax incentives and incubators for home-spun ventures. A pittance next to money still spent bidding for large factories, but it's a start, says Don Macke, codirector of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Nebraska. The money might also attract outside entrepreneurs to rural towns if they have some local roots there, maybe through a spouse or other relative.

Plainville was all of that for Comeau. After college, he stayed in Plainville, working in oil and banking. All the while, he and his wife developed a flair for interior design. He launched his business in 1993, and it became a hit with its high-end, handmade furniture inspired by antiques. Los Angeles provided skilled craftspeople; manufacturing remains there.

But as his company and staffing problems grew, he decided to move the main offices back to Plainville. He still travels most weeks, often making the three-hour drive to Wichita's airport. It is worth it, Comeau says, to be raising his kids in his small hometown. The Internet makes it possible to manage remote manufacturing, as well as 17 showrooms across North America. "You can now do just about anything in a rural community," he says.

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