American Indian entrepreneur Jona Rupnicki has some simple advice for aspiring Native business owners: “If the opportunity is there, you’ve just got to take it.” Rupnicki (Potawatomi-Kickapoo) seized an opportunity four years ago, soon after she finished her term serving on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Gaming Commission. She learned about a bar owner in a small rural town in northeast Kansas looking to sell. The prospect of buying it enticed her. But she was simultaneously hesitant to take on the challenges of running a bar. Ultimately, she decided she couldn't let the chance pass her by. “I always wanted to run my own business,” she told ICTMN. In October of 2008, Rupnicki opened her first business, Ruffnecks Bar & Grill in Emmett, Kansas, a town with a population of about 200. While she initially encountered some local resistance, Rupnicki continued to reach out to the community, eventually winning them over. The bar brought in a lot of business to the small town, including workers from nearby Jeffrey Energy Center. “We were pretty successful out there,” Rupnicki says. “They liked the environment and how we treated everybody.” Business in Emmett was good but short-lived. In 2009, the bar and grill was destroyed in a fire started by a youth playing with fireworks. After the incident, Rupnicki said she struggled with what to do next. With some solid experience in the bar industry, she began researching locations to rebuild her business. Old downtown North Topeka, located near the banks of the Kansas River, caught her attention. But she chose North Topeka "because I knew they were thinking about turning it into an arts district,” Rupnicki said. After finding a building on North Kansas Avenue, Rupnicki and her husband, John Rupnicki Sr., remodeled and made improvements using local Indian contractors. Together, the Rupnickis reopened the bar in late 2010, first, as a biker-themed bar. But as plans for the arts district quickly began to take off, Rupnicki knew it was time to rebrand her business. She de-emphasized the beer merchandizing, replaced the awning, designed a new logo more reflective of the district’s purpose and the owners’ Native roots, and she changed the name to better reflect the mission of the arts district. On October 5, 2012, the Rupnickis celebrated the re-launching of their business, J&J’s Gallery Bar, a full-service bar featuring jam sessions, live music on the weekends and the works of Indian artists. “It was awesome,” Rupnicki says of the bar’s grand re-opening. J&J’s is the latest edition to the NOTO (North Topeka) Arts District, which began as part of Topeka’s “Heartland Visioning” strategic planning process to revitalize and improve the quality of life in the capital city. The burgeoning arts district is attracting artists' galleries and studios, locally-owned businesses and eclectic shops. Not only does J&J’s have the unique distinction of being the capital city’s only gallery bar, it is also the only venue in town that will focus on featuring the works of American Indian artists and performers. “I think we’re going to be fulfilling that particular niche,” said Rupnicki. Other plans in the works are a beer garden and a portable stage for outdoor musical performances. The district is located just north of the Kansas River in historic North Topeka, once a part of the ancestral homeland to the Kaw or Kansa Indian Tribe. North Topeka was also the boyhood home of Charles Curtis, a citizen of the Kaw Tribe and the only person of Indian ancestry to serve as vice president of the United States (1925-1929). The Kaws were removed from Kansas to Oklahoma in 1872, and the area then known as downtown North Topeka became a bustling business district for much of the 20th century. But over the past 40 years, the area gradually fell into decline due to the changing face of retail from “mainstreet” to suburban malls and big-box retail chains. Rupnicki says the emergence of the NOTO Arts District has been amazing. “I’m absolutely excited,” says Rupnicki. “I’ve always been an art enthusiast myself. That’s always intrigued me.” Rupnicki earned her business degree in human resources and a master’s degree in business management from Friends University. She served on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Gaming Commission from 2004-2008 and currently is human resources manager for the Kickapoo Nation of Kansas’ Golden Eagle Casino. Rupnicki says her primary focus now is on providing a venue for Native American artists, musicians and performers. J&J’s is currently displaying the paintings of Prairie Band Potawatomi artist Warren “Hardy” Eteeyan. “I want to have a featured artist every month,” says Rupnicki. “I think it’s really important to emphasize Native people in the area,” Rupnicki says. “Area tribes need to step up and get involved with NOTO and the riverfront development. That’s what I’m hoping to do with my business now.” J&J’s Gallery Bar is located at 917 N. Kansas Ave., Topeka, Kansas. Hours are Sunday-Tuesday, 12 p.m.-2 a.m., and Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Jona Rupnicki can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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