Recently, Rural Cooperative Development funding helped to reopen a local Nebraska grocery store. The story goes like this.
The loss of a grocery store in a rural community can be a devastating blow, especially when it is the only, or at least major, source of local groceries. Not only do people then have to travel farther and expend more time and money to get their groceries, but it can also make it difficult on community pride and make it harder to attract new residents and businesses.
When the only grocery store in Elwood, Neb., closed in January of 2012, community leaders quickly responded, organizing a community meeting to consider opening a cooperatively owned grocery store. Jim Crandall of the UNL Nebraska Cooperative Development Center (NCDC), which receives funding from USDA Rural Development’s Rural Cooperative Development Grants, was the primary speaker at this first meeting to explain the concept of community ownership as a cooperative. The meeting attracted more than 100 people, almost all of whom felt that a grocery store was vital to the future of their community. Prior to and following the initial meeting, community leaders developed and distributed a survey to gauge interest in opening a co-op grocery store. The community response showed widespread support for the concept. A committed, hard-working steering committee was formed to begin the process of studying the feasibility of a grocery store, the cooperative business model, and creating pro-forma financials.
The 10 member steering committee formed subcommittees that focused on facilities, business and finance issues, and incorporation options with NCDC providing guides and outlines for each subgroup. Expert advice was sought from a local attorney, insurance agents, former store owners, neighboring stores and managers of grain co-ops in nearby towns (one grain co-op also owned a grocery store). Ideas were also sought from cooperative accountants, area economic developers and grocery suppliers. A financial plan was developed for remodeling the store, and progress and information was shared at two more community-wide meetings. All indications still showed continued support for opening the new grocery store.
The steering committee received a small grant from the NCDC to help with organizational costs such as attorney fees, brochure printings, and mailings. The committee met weekly or bi-weekly as a group, with subcommittees meeting at additional times to move the process forward quickly.
The cooperative was incorporated in May 2012 as the Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market. The steering committee, now Board of Directors, conducted a membership drive to capitalize the new business allowing them to purchase and remodel the former store location, hire a manager and purchase the inventory. Over 125 people bought ownership shares in the cooperative and new members are still being added to the ownership base. Coop members, board members, and other volunteers were involved in the remodeling of the store, installing coolers, freezers and shelving. Board members, coop members, and volunteers scanned inventory and stocked all the shelves in preparation for opening. The Market has been advertising their opening locally and through social media with their Facebook page.
The Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market celebrated their official “soft” opening on February 3rd with a preview of the new store for coop members and donors. The store opened for business to the general public on Monday, February 4th. The market plans to have a Grand Opening this spring to include a ribbon cutting and additional activities.