Finding the best model: could it be a CoOp?

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By Daniel Scotton, Equus Workforce Solutions

As snow begins to kiss the peaks around Ashland, and the residents begin to turn the dials on their thermostats, the air of change is inescapable. I had the opportunity to sit in a small, characteristically Ashland coffee shop with Annie Hoy, our Cooperative Development Specialist for Southern Oregon, representing the Northwest Cooperative Development Center.

She began our conversation with a powerful phrase, “Brown rice started the Ashland Food Co-op”. What is now an institution was grown from the smallest of seeds, just a handful of families on the hunt for more nutritious options. They banded together and in making a deal with Mountain People Warehouse, then a small regional distributor of natural and organic foods, ordered bulk brown rice, had it delivered to one of the organizers’ driveways, and divided it between families from there.

Cooperatives are a concept that have existed for hundreds of years, historical consensus placing their origin in the mid 1800s; recent socio-economic trends drove their popularity to new levels. In particular, Annie noted a large increase in the rationale of those applying for NCDC services being the desire to convert their existing small business to employee or community owned, rather than attempt to sell it to the highest bidder. The process itself is a little no more complicated than a simple sale. But, thanks in no small part to the work of Cooperative Developers such as Annie, worker owned co-ops provide the added benefit of ensuring that the employees of said business are well taken care of and enjoy the benefits of ownership. In the small business realm, employees become more than a numerical necessity,

they are as much a part of the family as the kids and grandkids. Relationships that are fostered over many working hours of banter, tears from stress, and complicated life events, shape these seemingly transactional connections into true familial bonds. These ownership arrangements, either Employee owned or Community owned, are particularly important in protecting the regional identities of some of our area’s smallest neighbors.

Late last year a restaurant in a rural area of Josephine County was forced into a situation where the lights were solemnly flicked and the doors locked for the last time. Unlike many casualties of the industry during that year, it was not a financial situation spurred by employment or the pandemic. The owner had passed away unexpectedly without a Will, and the assets including all operational licensing became frozen in probate. A small community was left without their only dine-in option, an establishment that served the community for decades, and had once been a beacon which drew in crowds from across the valley.

While one may consider this an odd case, a situation that couldn’t be replicated, given the “Silver Tsunami” building on the horizon, I believe there to be cause for concern. However, in this context cooperatives become an avenue in which the community can remain in command of their resources in situations such as this. The fact that many are taking advantage of the services provided by the Northwest Cooperative Development Center is encouraging, though we can all do our part to spread the message of hope via cooperative models to prevent the loss of staple businesses in our communities.”

Interested in learning more about the Cooperative model? Curious as to how this model may fit into your organizational structure? Or intrigued by the idea of starting your own movement? Reach out to Annie Hoy, Cooperative Development Specialist at (541) 326-1198 or by email at Annie@nwcdc.coop.

By Daniel Scotton, Equus Workforce Solutions

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