Photo: Locals, business owners and economic developers cut the ribbon on O’Neill’s Handlebend Building.

Residents and economic developers showed up to enjoy O’Neill’s newest hotspot, developed by two hometown entrepreneurs and made possible by the power of partnerships.

It was never a moneymaking idea, at first. Just two roommates wanting to build a better Mule mug.

“This was back when we were in college,” said Matt Dennis, co-owner of Handlebend. “Moscow Mules had exploded in popularity, so copper mugs were becoming kind of a hot item. But most of the mugs you could buy online were expensive imitations. We [incl. co-founder Michael Stepp] built our first 100 percent authentic copper mugs in Michael’s dad’s shop on a whim, just for our own use.”

It wasn’t long, though, before friends and family took notice and began requesting the handcrafted labors of love for themselves.

“Once we perfected our design we started getting a lot of interest in them as gifts. We had so many requests that it dawned on us we could probably go into business making the mugs and selling them online.”

Before you could say “ginger beer,” Handlebend was a full-blown manufacturing operation with six employees and an expanding product line. The only thing it didn’t have? Room to grow.

“We needed space to expand,” Dennis said. “The Shelhamer Building downtown checked just about all our boxes. But it was more space than we needed, and wasn’t something we thought we could afford at the time.”

But conversations with local economic developers convinced Dennis and Stepp there might be a way to afford the new space and pay it forward to the community.

“That’s when the idea for a shared commercial space really took off,” Dennis said.

Ever since the early days, the Shelhamer had served as a community gathering space. In its heyday it was a combined café, grocery store, creamery, hatchery and meat locker. So redeveloping it to house multiple businesses only seemed to make sense.

“We came up with a plan to rent out the front portion of the building to other local businesses while reserving the back for Handlebend manufacturing and production. That gave us a way to subsidize our costs, and ultimately to bring that community purpose back to the building,” Dennis said.

By partnering with Holt County Economic Development (HCED), Central Nebraska Housing and Economic Developers (CNHED) and the City of O’Neill, Dennis and Stepp were able to finance a portion of the building purchase and renovation through grants and loans. This included $100,000 in Site and Building Development Funds through the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, and more than $200,000 in local and private loans.

“The City of O’Neill is excited to partner with Handlebend on this new endeavor,” said O’Neill City Clerk/Treasurer Nikki Schwanz. “Handlebend’s vision to restore this building and make it a place for our community to gather once again is something we should all be proud of.”

“The addition of businesses and jobs in the Handlebend Building will enhance the quality of life and economic growth in the City of O’Neill,” said CNHED Executive Director Judy Petersen. “Many thanks to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development for their investment in Handlebend’s manufacturing expansion, and in our rural Nebraska communities.”

With renovations complete, the former Shelhamer has officially begun its new life as the Handlebend Building. It features no less than five small business, all owned and operated by local entrepreneurs. Joining Handlebend’s manufacturing operation are Douglas Street Coffee Co., which moved from a different location in O’Neill; The Village Flower Shoppe; and The Clover photography studio. Handlebend, itself, will run a taproom in the building.

“Our business is about bringing people together around our mugs to tell stories and spend time with friends and family,” Dennis said. “This project is really the same way, because it allows us, as local business owners, to help each other out by bringing in folks who might not otherwise walk through the door.”

To learn more about Handlebend, visit or find them on Facebook.

Visit DED at or find us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.