A handbag and apparel entrepreneur is partners with a contractor to turn a defunct museum into a manufacturing center with jobs.
WABASHA, MINN. - The idea for a new bluff-top textile factory bubbled to the surface on a pleasure boat ride on the Mississippi River last summer.
Kelly McDonald was looking to expand her start-up purse and apparel business, housed in an abandoned doctor’s office on a quaint downtown block of this river town.
John Behrns had just cleaned out his family’s defunct Arrowhead Bluffs Museum, an eclectic collection of Indian artifacts and hunting trophies that had been a popular stop for field trips and curious tourists up the hill overlooking Wabasha.
“We were out boating together when she mentioned she was looking for some warehouse space,” Behrns said. “I told her I had an empty museum on the bluff.”
A plan was launched: Behrns, a carpenter, would transform his family’s 40,000-square-foot museum into a factory with office lofts above a floor where sewing machines would crank out an array of American-made products ranging from handbags to doggy beds.
After what’s billed as a routine zoning approval, the AMUSA factory — short for America USA — is slated to open late next month, eventually employing as many as two dozen people from the area.
“If it all works out, it will be a great thing,” said Rollin Hall, Wabasha’s mayor. “Kelly McDonald certainly is an entrepreneur who has a vision to make American products and create some jobs.”
Returning to their roots
McDonald and Behrns both grew up among the picturesque river bluffs. Her grandfather was the area’s game warden for decades, while his forebears homesteaded and farmed up the hill.
Like many of their peers, they both left their small hometown, population 2,500, before they turned 21.
McDonald, 47, moved to Minneapolis at 17 and traveled the world as an insurance executive. “Tired of milking cows,” Behrns, now 53, took off at 20 and worked construction jobs in Canada, Alaska and Russia.
Both were drawn back to their southeastern Minnesota hometown by the pull of family and a desire to be near aging parents. They’re a contrasting pair. He’s a big-game hunter who wears Carhartt clothing; she’s a fashionista with an ever-present shih tzu dog named Romeo.
Behrns started his own residential construction business and helped run the family museum until visitor numbers waned. Most of the items were auctioned off after the doors were closed to the public in 2011.
‘You’ve got to do this here’
McDonald launched her business, KIS Fashions, after an eye doctor in 1990 used the wrong drops, accidentally and temporarily blinding her for more than a year. After a corneal transplant, she regained her eyesight — and noticed that all her sunglasses were scratched from sharing purse space with her keys.
She started designing handbags with distinct pockets for glasses and keys under the KIS logo, forging manufacturing relationships in China, India and Mexico. She added a clothing line of soft leisurewear made with bamboo fiber.
Her purses and pajamas are available on NBC’s online shopping site and she was ready to expand the business. But she resisted the lure of cheap labor overseas and decided to pursue U.S. manufacturing.
“I looked at space in St. Paul, California, Georgia and New York,” she said. “But everywhere I called, there was a fat cat on the other end of the line trying to line his pockets.”