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.”
She joined a Minnesota nonprofit called the Makers Coalition, a group intent on renewing America’s sewing heritage. Locals in Wabasha, meanwhile, turned up the heat.
“My old piano teacher, my neighbor with a family trucking company and the owner of a local embroidery business all told me: ‘You’ve got to do this here,’ ” she said.
She’s working with the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis to come to Wabasha for textile job training seminars and hopes to find displaced skilled workers from the Red Wing Shoe Co. up Hwy. 61. She’s also opening up design opportunities to fashion students on her website through competitions.
Her makeshift crew produced more than 60 handbags recently for the Shriners organization and, once the factory is up and running, she plans to funnel a portion of her profits to organizations that serve the visually impaired and mentally handicapped.
‘The community’s factory’
Jane Roemer is among the lifelong Wabasha residents excited about the prospects of a new factory. She’s an unemployed accountant who hopes to help McDonald.
“I really like Kelly’s passion,” she said, “and how part of the profits are going to charitable causes.”
Besides her own handbags and apparel, McDonald says the factory will be home to a local company, the Rover Mattress Co., that uses recycled materials to make dog beds. And a California T-shirt and scarf company has also expressed interest.
Behrns, who will be the factory’s landlord, hopes to cash in on a little patriotic fervor.
“Whenever I buy something, nine out of 10 times, I look where it was made and lean toward products manufactured in America,” he said.
Made in Wabasha, well, that would be even sweeter for the game warden’s granddaughter.
“I think he’d be real proud,” McDonald said. “What I’m building will live on long past my lifetime. It will be the community’s factory.”