Remodel of former grocery space in Butte

The area of the former Stokes Market grocery store on Harrison Avenue shows a bare space that's being prepared for the expansion of True Value hardware store and the inclusion of two dollar stores.

In the wake of two Butte grocery stores halting their operations within the span of a few months, two local organizations plan to host a meeting Monday to gauge public interest in establishing a food cooperative.

The proposed location is in the old Hennessey Market in the Sears Building on Granite Street in Uptown Butte.

In March, the grocer surprised Butte residents with a sign notifying customers that the store would be “closed until further notice." The Uptown grocer never reopened.

A month later, Stokes Market on Harrison Avenue announced that it too would be winding down its operations.

Leading the meeting Monday will be local economic development organization Headwaters RC&D and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, a national nonprofit based in Butte with a sustainability driven mission.

There are a number of ways a cooperative can be organized, but the basic tenet is this: unlike a traditional for-profit business, co-operatives are owned by members of the community and are governed democratically by a board. Decision making, meanwhile, takes into account both the needs of the business and the needs of the community.

Some food co-ops are owned by employees, while others are owned by producers who want to combine forces and create a venue for selling their goods. But perhaps the most familiar form of the cooperative is the customer-owned model.

“The closure of Hennessey Market and Stokes Market has left a void in Butte,” said Julie Jaksha, Headwaters regional director, in a statement Thursday. “There’s been a lot of buzz in the last few weeks about establishing a community-owned business to provide healthy, affordable food, especially Uptown.”

Jaksha said establishing a co-op in Hennessy Market is not a done deal. Monday’s meeting is merely intended to gauge public interest in the idea and to provide information about how a cooperative ownership model works.

If the session indicates a high level of community support, Jaksha said the next step would be to develop a community survey that would give residents a chance to voice their needs, share their ideas, and give feedback on how the co-op should be organized.

After that, next steps would include establishing a steering committee that would, among other things, oversee a market study, feasibility assessment, and business plan.

For some, the word cooperative might conjure images of yoga-mat-carrying, smoothie-drinking affluent types, but Steve Thompson, NCAT director, explained that co-operatives have been established in some pretty salt-of-the-earth locales throughout Montana – including in places like Geraldine, Neihart, and Turner.

For Thompson, one of the selling points of a Butte co-operative is that it would be owned by members of the community and would therefore be locally controlled rather than being steered by an out-of-state company. What’s more, profits from the store would go to local members or shareholders, which means the money would stay in Butte and not go to some far-flung place.

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Plus, he said, Hennessey Market is basically a turnkey business that wouldn’t require costly building renovations.

Janice Brown, executive director of the Montana Cooperative Development Center, a statewide organization that helps cooperatives get off the ground, expressed similar sentiments.

“You have local control, you have local money,” she said, adding that member-owners are invested in the success in the business, which incentivizes shopping at the co-op.

Thompson added that Nick and Jen Kujawa, owners of the Sears Building, are supportive of the idea.

“They want to make this work, but ultimately it will require community members to step up and take ownership of this idea. Monday’s meeting will be the first step in determining whether a critical mass of support exists in Butte,” he said.

The Montana Standard spoke with one of the founding members of the Turner co-op, Shannon Van Voast, in 2016.

Van Voast described how Big Flat Grocery came into being in 2013 after the small rural community, which has a population of 60 and is a hub for about 200 people in the surrounding areas, lost its only grocery.

After the closure, residents found themselves driving anywhere between 30 and 75 miles to meet their grocery needs. Van Voast herself would travel 75 miles to Havre to buy several gallons of milk at a time, which she would later freeze so the gallons wouldn’t spoil.

But rather than waiting for an individual to start a business or for a national chain to take an interest in the 60-person town, residents got together and launched a co-op in the site of the former privately owned grocery store.

For Thompson, self-reliance is part of what starting a co-op is all about. And Butte, being a particularly self-reliant community, seems like the perfect spot to get one going.

Oftentimes it’s easy to say, “Someone ought to do something about that,” Thompson said.

“(But) somebody is you, and somebody is me,” he said. “Somebody is all of us. … And it’s empowering.”

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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