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Co-op Conversion Offers a Potential Solution to Grocery Store Loss

What do you do when the only grocery store in your town decides to close? A cooperative buy-out and conversion may offer a solution.

Phil’s Supermarket, a family-owned and operated grocery store, has been a fixture in Plain, WI, population 773, for over 90 years. But in the last few years, the family owners had decided that it was time to sell the business, and had unsuccessfully pursued several potential buyers. Shutting down the business had increasingly appeared to be their only option.

But there was plenty of community interest in maintaining this downtown anchor business, and the executive director of the Sauk County Development Corporation, who had attended the Madison Cooperative Jobs Conference in June, began to explore a cooperative solution to save Plain’s only grocery store.

He contacted UWCC’s Courtney Berner, who over the course of the summer met with community leaders to introduce the cooperative model, explore how a conversion of the grocery business to a cooperative might work, and facilitate the formation of a steering committee for the project.

A community meeting in December of 2012 generated strong community support for the idea of a cooperative grocery store and within a few weeks nearly 200 people had pledged to become members. Many also expressed a willingness to make a loan to a new cooperative venture and offered to volunteer on the project.

Courtney continues to work with the four task forces that have been set up to tackle the financial, marketing and business planning issues involved in a potential buyout and conversion. Two other grocery co-ops in the region have expressed willingness to provide technical support for a conversion to a cooperative grocery store structure.

Many are hopeful that the resources, skills, and common vision evident so far bode well for developing a cooperative solution to a problem all too common in rural communities across Wisconsin.

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