Can Community Co-ops Revive Our Towns?

Volunteers at Company Shops Market Burlington photo

A volunteer helps clean up the disused grocery store. Image credit: Company Shops Market
Hometown Security through Local Co-ops
The current climate might not seem like the best time to open a grocery store. A group of residents in Burlington, NC - a town that has seen its fair share of unemployment and company closures over the years - would beg to disagree. They argue that this is exactly the time to support local, sustainable businesses that can breathe life back into America's towns and cities. That's the inspiration behind Company Shops Market - a locally owned co-operative that is setting out to refurbish an old grocery store built in 1949, offering local, sustainable food from the area's farmers. But can community co-ops offer a more sustainable solution to economic development?
In the interests of transparency, I should note at this stage that I am far from an objective by-stander. I have friends involved with this project - and have worked with board member Eric Henry in other capacities. And I am a passionate believer in community action for sustainability. In a recent press release, Eric compared such grassroots efforts with the unfathomable complications of Wall Street:

"As I scratch my head in an effort to figure out the AIG bonuses and wonder how the economic stimulus is going to impact my life and business, I can't help but think about what makes real economic sense to me.Over the last 20 years, we have run an economy based upon who can supply the lowest price, not considering social and environmental impact. Our race to the bottom is finally coming to a head, our economy and unemployment the worst since the Great Depression.

What part can we play in the solution? A reconnection to our local community and the food and other products it can supply is the first step. [...] Company Shops will be a different kind of grocery store, one that sells as many food products from local farmers and food processors as possible. The co op will also provide a catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Burlington.

Company Shops Market Burlington

The disused storefront that weill become the new co-op. Image credit: Company Shops Market

But while I'm thoroughly behind the project - I can't help but worry how co-ops will fair in a recession. The jury is still out on whether organic food will remain a priority for consumers, or whether consumers sacrifice quality for price when times are tough. On an anecdotal level, I already hear on the grapevine that other co-operative stores in the area are struggling as folks cut back on food spending, and the comparatively high level of benefits and wages at co-ops can mean they have less flexibility compared to their big-box counterparts. (Of course it is also these very 'drawbacks' that make them so valuable to the community.)

The Economist recently ran an interesting article on how the co-op movement is fairing in the recession, focusing on some of the larger co-ops in Spain:

Problems may be shared with competitors, but solutions are not. A workers' co-op has its hands tied. It cannot make members redundant or, in Mondragón's case, sell companies or divisions. Losses in one unit are covered by the others. "It can be painful at times, when you are earning, to give to the rest," Mr Zabala admits. Lossmaking co-ops can be closed, but members must be re-employed within a 50km (30-mile) radius. That may sound like a nightmare for managers battling recession. But co-ops also have their advantages. Lay-offs, short hours and wage cuts can be achieved without strikes, and agreements are reached faster than in companies that must negotiate with unions and government bodies under Spanish labour law.

Ultimately though, I suspect it won't be the structural advantages or disadvantages of co-ops like Company Shops that keeps them afloat - but rather the will and commitment of the local community. In Burlington, the fledgling group already has 750 owners - and they are looking to raise that number to 2000 before the store has even opened. They are holding an open day tomorrow at the new site to help make that happen.

I'd love to hear from readers of other community-led projects that are seeking sustainable, local solutions to our financial malaise.

Company SHops Market Burlington image

Architects drawings of the new site. Image credit: Company Shops Market

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