Magazine article Rural Cooperatives

Co-Ops Keep Crucial Businesses Alive in Tiny Montana Towns

Magazine article Rural Cooperatives

Co-Ops Keep Crucial Businesses Alive in Tiny Montana Towns

Article excerpt

THE CONVERSION of small, privately held retail businesses into consumer-owned community cooperatives appears to be a growing trend in rural Montana. A primary motivator is the need to retain essential services in small towns that have long struggled to support their Main Street businesses. Once these businesses close, many rural towns are left without a grocery or general store or a bar and cafe.

Facing the prospect of round-trip drives of 60 miles or more to the nearest market, rural residents are banding together to form consumer coops that will buy and operate these businesses.

Over the past several years, the Montana Cooperative Development Center (MCDC) has seen increasing interest in consumer co-ops that will sell food, beverages and hardware in very small towns. MCDC has recently provided technical assistance to a number of co-op conversion projects, including a grocery store in Neihart (population 51), a general store in Winnett (population 179) and a bar and cafe in Whitewater (population 64).

Many of these projects have gained inspiration from the Big Flat Grocery co-op, located in Turner, a small town (population 76) in northern Montana, close to the Canadian border. When Turner lost its only grocery store in 2013, concerned citizens joined together to develop a plan to establish a co-op.

"Without a grocery store, we were worried that our little town would fade away," says Shannon Van Voast, a founding member of the co-op. "The importance and value of a community store was reinforced by this void that we all felt. Our store has proven to be extremely successful in Turner, and sales have continued to increase during our tenure."

Whitewater, another tiny town not far from Turner, was on the verge of losing its only bar and cafe after the owner announced plans to retire. Local residents quickly went into action to form their own co-op to keep open the North 40 Bar & Cafe, which serves as a central meeting place for community members. …

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