Small Towns, Big Impact: Pineville, MO

A coffee shop in Pineville, MO is offering high school students an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about running a business and pocket scholarship money at the same time. Smart Growth America partnered with T-Mobile to help this learning lab grow, boosting the local and regional economy in the process.

Launched in 2021, T-Mobile’s Hometown Grant program is investing in the power of community-driven initiatives to ensure small towns can connect, innovate, and grow together, dedicating $25 million through 2026 to support community development projects in towns nationwide. We partnered with T-Mobile to deliver technical assistance to six of these communities. To learn more, visit

Customers arrive at the cozy River Blend Coffee Shop, where students are ready and waiting to serve them

Project background

Pineville, Missouri, also known as “The River City” is home to less than 1,000 people and nestled in the Ozark Mountains. Despite its small size, Pineville is a vibrant place that intentionally invests in the future of youth in the area, providing them with opportunities to participate in a hands-on learning experience through the River Blend Coffee learning lab. The coffee shop, located in the heart of the city on Pineville Square, is a completely student-run business that teaches McDonald County students how to run a business and puts money in their pockets in the form of scholarships. Kasey O’Brien, President of the McDonald County Student Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded the idea for the coffee shop and pursued a T-Mobile Hometown Grant to construct the first iteration of the shop. River Blend Coffee opened in 2021, but lacked a professional feel, equipped with temporary, informal partitions to separate the space and no official seating area. In 2022, the chamber and the high school worked together to secure additional funding and outfitted the shop with a more official look and feel, updated machinery, and seating.

Construction and financing

With a $50,000 Hometown Grant from T-Mobile, River Blend Coffee was able to remodel, creating a more professional atmosphere, as well as purchase an espresso machine, coffee grinders, and other materials it needed to become a fully functional, full-service shop. The shop leveraged an additional $10,700 from McDonald County High School for interior renovations. What was clear throughout the duration of the project and its remodel was that it could not have been completed without countless hours of volunteer support from the Chamber and teachers. Local businesses also supported the River Blend Coffee venture, including Airship Coffee, a popular coffee shop in neighboring Bentonville, donating their expertise and advice to get the shop off the ground.

Prepping lattes looks like fun as a student laughs and opens up a bottle of vanilla syrup in the back of the cafeGoals and outcomes

The main goal of River Blend Coffee was to help students and youth get involved in the community and to provide additional opportunities to earn money and gain work experience. About eleven students fully staff the shop, open from 7 a.m.-11 a.m. on weekdays, and is supervised by a volunteer teacher from the high school. Revenues at River Blend contribute to a scholarship fund for students who work at the shop, and employees take home the tips from their shifts. The shop’s location in the square provides spikes in business when local events take place and provides easy pedestrian access to neighboring businesses.

Beyond benefits for the students who work at River Blend, the shop has had reverberating impacts on the wider community, especially the Pineville Chamber located just next door. The intergenerational interactions between students and customers at the coffee shop have been particularly impactful, sowing fruitful relationships that otherwise would not have been possible, and providing opportunities for students to network with locals and build professional ties.

A surprising result of the coffee shop project was the amount of regional interest it generated. After seeing the success of River Blend Coffee, three other cities in the county are considering how they can use grant funds, like those from T-Mobile, to complete transformational projects of their own. River Blend Coffee has not only been a business incubator for Pineville, it now serves a model for other communities.


The main challenges for River Blend Coffee lay in the physical elements of the shop’s construction. Planned to be completely student-run, including the building’s renovation and construction, this was a learning process for both students and volunteer staff as they encountered roadblocks, timeline delays, and many unknowns—including the pandemic, building challenges, and difficulties acquiring required materials and machinery. Another challenge was that things did not always go according to plan, leading to student frustration as expectations rubbed up against realities. However, all seemingly disappointing things in the moment turned out to be positive in hindsight. When a challenge popped up, students weighed their options and devised a plan to address it, a valuable lesson giving insights into the real world.

Teamwork is the name of the game as two high school students hand off duties while working in the coffee shopThe bright future ahead for River Blend Coffee

In 2023, the chamber purchased another building on the Square where they will be moving in 2024, and donated the old chamber building to River Blend Coffee to use as a community space. Potential projects include expanding the seating area outside of the shop, including a city-approved street bump-out to accommodate that, and turning the shop into a multi-use space where students can hang out, display their artwork, and participate in other group activities. Like many small midwestern communities, Pineville struggles to attract and retain residents and has issues with “brain drain.” River Blend Coffee provides the opportunity for the city to invest in its most important asset: its people. The opening of the coffee shop brought people back to downtown Pineville and provided hope for a more prosperous future. Just recently, a vacant building across the street from the shop was bought and others will follow, supporting both the local and regional economy. Projects like River Blend Coffee can do wonders for small communities such as Pineville, and show local elected officials just how powerful a community can be when people come together.

“It all has to start somewhere. Why not with our younger residents? Success might even give them a reason to stay and build their own businesses.” —John Newby, President, McDonald County Chamber
We built upon our history working with rural communities by providing technical assistance to a select group of T-Mobile’s Hometown grant recipients. Read about all six communities by clicking the links below.

Land Use and Development Rural Development