American Independent Business Alliance

The Center for Community Ownership


Helping People Fill Local Needs Through Shared Vision, Investment

In hundreds of rural communities, residents have no way to obtain fresh food without long, costly drives that also can be dangerous in winter months. Hundreds of communities have seen their local newspaper fold, leaving people without information necessary for a cohesive community and functioning local democracy. And in countless cities, real estate leases are rising so fast that residents are being displaced and those without substantial wealth are denied opportunities to enter business.

These situations are just a few situations where traditional private investment is unlikely to help and the required capital or small population makes traditional cooperatives impractical. But from remote rural communities to the metropolis of Minneapolis, people have banded together to launch community-owned businesses filling those voids and empowering residents.

What Is a Community-Owned Business?

Community-owned businesses (COBs) are financed and owned collectively by local residents. COBs can provide a vehicle to fill local needs including local media, affordable broadband, fresh groceries, household goods, affordable commercial spaces and other community voids. 

With COBS, ownership and control lies entirely with local residents. After a corporation is formed to start a business (or buy an existing one), shares are sold to residents who become the owners. These owners then elect a board of directors and handle governance, including hiring a manager(s) to run the day-to-day business operations. Bylaws ensure the businesses forever remain locally-owned and controlled.

Though COBs provide much promise for urban neighborhoods, many early efforts have been grocery stores in rural “food deserts” where depopulation or/and large chain stores some distance away have driven out traditional grocers. 

Brattleboro-coop-apple-varieties

Sourcing from local farmers and other entrepreneurs is one key way community-based businesses build positive impact. Brattleboro, VT coop pictured.

In many such places, community ownership can be a game-changer because it shifts people’s consciousness. Shopping decisions no longer are just a choice between leaving town to the big store vs buying locally, but the opportunity for residents to buy from their own store.

The number of shares each COB investor may purchase usually is limited to ensure decisions reflect the interests of the community and prevent dependence on any one person. Community-owned stores have the additional benefit of tending to favor buying local products (and can write such preferences into their mission), broadening economic opportunity, increasing the local multiplier effect to build local wealth.

Are COBs Different from Cooperatives?

While COBs encompass cooperatives, most traditional coops depend on modest member fees. This approach lacks the potential to raise sufficient capital in many situations and typically requires a timeline of years to accomplish. A COB is well-suited to attract larger investments from some residents, enabling capital-intensive enterprises to start at scale.* We fully support cooperatives, but have found many communities require an approach with flexibility, is simpler to set up and run, and — because it resembles traditional business structures — may make it easier to attract investment.

Can COBs Be Used to Prevent Closure of Needed Businesses?

Yes! COBs are not just a tool to fill areas of need — they are a tool to enable residents to buy a business that provides an essential service in cases where the current owners are selling or closing. There are countless business owners across the country without succession plans, putting towns or neighborhoods at risk of losing crucial services, jobs and local economic benefit. Creating a community-owned corporation also can provide aging business owners with the security of a willing buyer.

How Do We Create a COB?

AMIBA has assembled a team of nationally-recognized experts with expertise in managing legal, financial, and business planning, along with economic analysis work required to create COBs. We now are inviting inquiries from communities interested in starting a COB and offering a free assessment. Please contact coordinator Andrew Connor to learn more.

Once you make contact, we will perform an intake and assessment to help you determine if this model is a good fit for your circumstances. If so, we will customize a plan for your project, provide necessary technical support, and collaborate with you to co-manage the project from start to finish. The Center for Community Ownership will be an active partner throughout the entire process to help you succeed!

Some Community-Owned Businesses in the U.S. (not traditional cooperatives)

General Stores

Family Matters; Malta, Montana

Washakie Wear; Worland, Wyoming

Little Muddy Dry Goods; Plentywood, Montana

Garnet Mercantile; Ely, Nevada

Saranac Lake Community Store; New York, New York (See 2011 profile)

Main Street Guymon; Guymon, Oklahoma

Quimper Mercantile; Port Townsend, Washington

Restaurants

bobcat

Bobcat Cafe in Bristol, VT

Bobcat Cafe; Bristol, Vermont

Breweries

Black Star Co-Op; Austin, Texas (The first cooperatively owned and worker self-managed brewpub)

Grocery Stores

Jubilee Food Market; Waco, Texas

Lodge Pole Trading Post, Lodge Pole, Montana

Walsh Community Grocery Store, Walsh, Colorado
media: High Country NewsThe Denver Post, TV news clips

Lake Grocery; Willow Lake, South Dakota

*To learn about the hundreds of traditional member-funded grocery co-ops visit National Co-op Grocers and Cooperative Development Institute.

Both urban areas and rural towns are exploring community ownership models as a solution to food deserts. Other alternative business models employed to bring groceries to under-served areas include Mandela Marketplace, Oakland, CA; Stop One Meat Market, Rochester, NY and People’s Community Market, Oakland, CA. Also, the Seward Coop in Minneapolis provides an interesting study (2016 article) in ensuring a coop serves the needs of a diverse working-class population. Please tell us of examples we’ve missed!

 

Closed or Unsuccessful COBs (for which we have information)

Powell Mercantile; Powell, Wyoming (Closed in 2016 after more than a decade in business. See news coverage from 2002 and 2004)

The Bee’s Knees; Morrisville, Vermont (Closed in 2015 after 12 years in business)

Claire’s Restaurant and Bar; Hardwick, Vermont (Closed in 2014 after 6 years in business)

Planned general store; Greenfield Massachusetts, (failed to meet its fundraising goals and organizing ceased in 2011)

 

Helping More Communities Assess and Employ the COB Model

Many support systems exist for traditional cooperatives BUT no support system exists to help people start community-owned businesses in North America. AMIBA is currently seeking funding to establish the Center for Community Ownership as permanent project. The Center will identify best practices, common challenges, and resources and create a national (or beyond) communication network for creating community-owned businesses.

Please consider a tax-deductible donation to help the CCO!

 

News Coverage of COBs

How to Feed the Masses in Small-town America September 2016

Quimper Mercantile: Tiny Profit, Goal of Sustainability April 2015

How to Launch a Community-Owned Store 2012 (pdf)

Communities Saving Cherished Stores July 2009

Town Working Together to Carry Groceries November 2008

Communities Create Their Own Stores May 2005

Thanks to Amy Campbell Bogie of the National Coalition for Community Capital for interviewing many of the businesses above. 

 

 If you know of examples to add in any category (including failed attempts), please tell us!

 

  • Joshua Bloom, who has blogged on this topic, identifies four broad structures of community-controlled business:
  • Cooperative: A communally owned and managed business, operated for the benefit of its members.
  • Community-owned corporation: A traditional, for-profit corporation that integrates social enterprise principles.
  • Small ownership group: A small, ad hoc investor group that capitalizes and/or operates a business as a partnership or closely-held corporation.
  • Investment fund: A community-based fund that invests debt or equity in local business ventures.

Resources on Shared Ownership Models

Organizations

Cooperative Development Institute

Center for Cooperatives

The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives

National Cooperative Business Association

National Center for Employee Ownership

Cooperative Development Services

Publications

A Cooperative Entrepreneurship Curriculum (Canada, 2016)

Keeping Wealth Local: Shared Ownership and Wealth Control For Rural Communities (Ford Foundation, 2009)

Strategies for Financing the Inclusive Economy (Democracy Collaborative, 2016)

International

Community Owned Pubs are on the rise in the UK

 

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