A meeting exploring the possibility of starting a grocery cooperative in Hennessy Market did not disappoint organizers Monday when over 165 people attended the event in the ballroom of the Thornton Building in Uptown Butte.
Julie Jaksha and Steve Thompson —who respectively head the economic-development organization Headwaters RC&D and the National Center For Appropriate Technology — hosted the event to gauge public interest in the idea.
Jaksha said Tuesday it was “exciting” to see how many people attended the meeting, adding that she sees the turnout as a sign of positive things to come.
During the meeting, volunteers signed up to be part of five preliminary committees. One of the committees will survey the community about wants and needs. Committees will also come up with strategies for organizing the cooperative’s structure, recruiting leadership, raising money and determining a vision for the proposed grocery.
By the end of the meeting, Thompson said, 75 people volunteered for the committees.
The survey is expected to be released in both paper and digital formats sometime before the end of June.
Jaksha said Monday that a “void” has been left in Uptown Butte with the closure of Hennessy Market, a grocer that operated in the Sears Building on Granite Street since 2010. The market had specialized in organic and natural foods until the store unexpectedly closed in March.
Monday’s meeting also revealed a little more about the nature of cooperatives, which come in many forms, including employee-owned, producer-owned and customer-owned cooperatives.
To some, the cooperative might seem like a new concept, but there are actually some big names in the business world that are organized as cooperatives, said Marilyn Besich from the Montana Cooperative Development Center, a nonprofit that, among other things, helps prospective co-ops get off the ground.
Ace Hardware, for instance, is a cooperative, along with Best Western Hotels & Resorts and Sunkist Growers Inc., she said.
Besich went on to explain that in a customer-owned cooperative, customers can buy into the business by purchasing shares and becoming member-owners.
Similarly, member-owners vote to elect a board of directors, who in turn make decisions and oversee the business.
Cooperatives are for-profit corporations in the state of Montana. However, each member of a cooperative gets one vote regardless of how many shares he or she has, so there aren’t any hostile takeovers.
Besich said Monday that some advantages of cooperatives include that they aren’t taxed as much as traditional corporations and they’re exempt from securities laws.
But most of all, cooperatives take into account the needs of the community because they are member-owned.
“The business is owned, controlled and governed by the people who use the business,” she said.
Thompson agreed, describing the co-op model as a “healthy vehicle for real-life democracy.”
Other speakers Monday included Whitehall rancher Dave Scott of Montana Highland Lamb, who said that cooperatives can help support local producers by providing them a venue where they can showcase their goods.
Scott sells his products at, among other places, the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, which has been in operation since 1979. He attributed farmers’ markets and the co-op with helping him connect with customers and spread the word about his business in its early days.
Judith Duryea, who owns Dancing Rainbow Natural Grocery on Montana Street, spoke in support of establishing a cooperative, expressing a sentiment of “a rising tide lifts all ships.” Dancing Rainbow has been in business for 35 years, she said, and she’s stayed committed to keeping her store small.
Duryea added that Dancing Rainbow had a good relationship with Hennessy Market and that the two stores complemented one another.
Rob Hedval, former Hennessy Market manager, also spoke Monday.
Hedval noted that the grocer was known for its produce and was a place where “celery tasted like celery.”
“Let’s get the good stuff back in Butte,” he said, expressing the hope that a cooperative in the Hennessy location would honor the former store’s produce-forward business model.
However, he cautioned that it’s hard to compete with Walmart prices because of the mega-retailer’s buying power and ability to secure deep discounts from suppliers.
Jaksha said Tuesday that a feasibility study will be needed to establish a co-op.
Those can run anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000, and even more, Jaksha said, so committee members will have to look for sources for funding. She said Headwaters has already been researching possible funding sources, including grants.
Also coming down the pipeline will be the first committee meetings, which Jaksha hopes will take place by the end of June. Those meetings will be supported by materials from the Food Co-op Initiative, a Minnesota-based organization that provides resources and support for cooperatives, and Headwaters and NCAT staff.
Afterward, Jaksha said, she hopes the committees can operate on their own. She stressed that if a cooperative is to get off the ground, it should be a community-driven initiative and not one led by any one particular organization.