Co-Ops Succeed Through Collaboration

Hundreds of Stakeholder-Owners Bring Diverse Resources for Co-Op Businesses.

Gainesville’s eclectic culture has spawned several co-operative businesses in recent years, providing the community with access to good food and great art, creating great places to gather and giving members pride of ownership.

Three prominent local co-ops include Citizens Co-op, the Doris Bardon Community Cultural Center and Civilization Restaurant, which also operates Terranova Catering. The founders of all three were inspired by the recent national surge in co-ops, which are loosely defined as entities that are owned by their members (see story on page 15)—and they have found enthusiastic colleagues to join them in their ventures.

Citizens Co-Op is owned jointly by its nearly 1,300 members. Major decisions are made by the seven-member board, and day-to-day operation is in the hands two managers and assistant managers.

One of its founders, Gretchen McIntyre, left town to get a master’s in accounting at the University of Southern California, and while in the San Francisco Bay area, she became enamored with the abundant locally grown food.

But her heart stayed in Gainesville, and she returned home five years ago with a vision of starting a business based on local food.

McIntyre ran into an old friend, Liz Nesbitt, who had her heart set on starting a co-op. The two joined forces, and their work paid off when Citizens Co-op opened at 435 S. Main St. in July.

Travel just a bit northwest past downtown, and you’ll find Civilization, which operates as a worker-owned cooperative restaurant. The 10 member-owners make all decisions and at least one member-owner serves as the go-to person each shift.

Co-founder John Prosser was similarly influenced by what he saw elsewhere—a surge in worker-owned co-ops in many parts of the United States. “Cooperatives are a better place for people to work,” he says of their collaborative nature and shared rewards.

Between Citizens Co-Op and Civilization, you’ll find The Doris, as it is commonly known. Ande Lister, an artist whose abstract “non-objective” paintings have been displayed across the country, brought her experience from being part of an art center in Peoria, Ill. She and her husband, a University of Florida neurosurgeon, moved here five years ago, and she’s since put her background to work in helping create the an art center that has started to become known as a hub for artists and community gatherings since opening in a storefront building at 716 N. Main St. in October. Although The Doris operates as a nonprofit organization, it operates cooperatively, Lister says.

Citizens Co-op, The Doris and Civilization have several characteristics in common, including:

  • Operating through broad-based governance.
  • Being dedicated to serving community needs while promoting wholesome values.
  • Using their buildings as centers of fellowship and education.

 

Citizens Co-Op Doing Well

Having a building as a base of operation makes all the difference in the world, McIntyre of Citizens Co-op says.

“For a long time, we were just an idea that we were selling to people,” McIntyre says.

Membership has grown much faster since Citizens Co-op opened than it did during the four years of planning since the July launch, McIntyre says. Memberships start at $100. Investments, with an 8 percent return, range from $500 to $10,000.

While McIntyre had planned to create a business with a traditional operating structure, Nesbit was committed to founding a co-op. She researched how to set one up by visiting co-ops and farms around the United States.

The co-op building isn’t just a local grocery store. It is fast becoming a hub of social events and workshops on topics from recipes to new food products. Plans include adding a cafe and holding cooking classes. The co-op goes beyond farmers’ markets, McIntyre says. “We’re like a permanent farmers’ market,” she says.

Among the people behind the co-op is James Steele, who has been growing produce and herbs and educating others about this work for 40 years. “Some of the people who came to my nursery over the years are now prominent growers,” he says.

Steele has set aside farming his herb garden in Melrose to work as Citizens Co-op’s produce manager. Although the co-op sells a variety of food, it specializes in produce, much of which is locally grown, Steele says. He sends out weekly e-mails to alert customers about what’s available.

For workers, the co-op’s goal is to provide a living wage. McIntyre acknowledges that the starting salary of $10 an hour falls short of what an individual needs, but points out that it’s above starting salaries at most other area groceries.

For growers, the co-op provides a dependable market for their crops. While some growers like the convenience of delivering their produce to the co-op, others prefer to sell their entire production at farmers’ markets, McIntyre says. The co-op promotes conversations—about how much produce growers should cultivate and about what products the store should handle.

Food regulations pose a challenge for Citizens Co-op. Meat labeled for human consumption must be inspected at a USDA certified packinghouse, McIntyre says.

The co-op sells some USDA-certified meat. It also offers meat labeled for animal consumption, which was not slaughtered at a USDA-certified facility; it’s not permitted to display the meat, and customers must request to have it brought out from a freezer in the back of the store. “We have a lot of really good dog food in our store,” McIntyre says.

While forming the co-op has been rewarding, operating with a broad team has its trials, McIntyre admits. “Multiple times, I’ve hit myself in the head for not forming my own business,” she says. “Forming the co-op was a longer process than starting on my own would have been.”

Still, Citizens Co-op is on target with its business model, having reached the break-even point in November. “That’s incredible, and we’re working hard to make sure it continues,” McIntyre says.

Florida law doesn’t provide an entity called “cooperative,” McIntyre notes. This deficiency led Citizens Co-op to organize itself as a for-profit business.

Before opening, the co-op raised $350,000 to pay for renovating its space, buying start-up inventory and covering operating shortfalls until it moved into the black, all from members and investors. Members and employees receive a discount on their purchases. “We cater to our members,” McIntyre says. “Our focus is on being the best place to be for shoppers, grocers and producers.

“In the end, I don’t own more of the co-op than anyone else, and I’m not following the capitalist idea of building a business and retiring from it,” McIntyre says. “It’s up to a lot of other people.”

Despite the trials, McIntyre is glad she took the co-op path. “There’s no way I could have done this on my own,” she says. “We can do a lot more to help create community in Gainesville.”

 

Civilization: Worker-Owned Co-Op

Prosser was intent upon operating a business in which the workers were the owners when he bought Terranova Catering three years ago. He was buoyed by the availability of top-notch staff with whom he had worked at the Paramount Grill and other restaurants.

There was a catch. Most of the workers he started with didn’t get it, Prosser says. “They couldn’t get used to a different way of doing things. Democracy can be frustrating.”

Fortunately, Prosser and his wife, Ann Murray, have found an ample supply of workers, many of them artists, who embrace the idea of becoming part of a worker-owned cooperative as he expanded Terranova and started Civilization restaurant, Prosser says.

In addition to the 10 owners-workers, Civilization has 15 other workers, most of whom are interested in making the $1,000 commitment—which can be paid over time—to become owners, Murray says.

Among those involved is Caroline Hines, one of the few original staff who has remained with the business. Hines, who manages the catering business, says being an owner makes people like their jobs better.

“It makes you responsible and aware of what needs to be done,” she says. “If I see that the plants need to be watered, I water them. If I see that the mat needs to be swept, I sweep it.”

Civilization, located at 1511 NW 2nd St., has a strong following of diners coming for everything from a simple quiche lunch to a $22 fresh fish dinner.

“Gainesville has a big market for something like this,” Prosser says. “We have everyone from hippies from the ‘60s to professionals who appreciate good food.”

Fostering worker-owned co-ops is just as important to Prosser as providing excellent food. He’s proud that Civilization is the only worker-owner co-op n Florida and its adjoining states, and he’s intent upon fostering other worker co-ops.

All major decisions are made at meetings of the entire group of owner-workers, with regular meetings held monthly and impromptu meetings held as needed. “This way of doing business is a better approach to running the economy,” Prosser says.

The collective operating style can pose problems at times, Murray says. “We’ve had our bumps, but we seem to be doing okay.”

 

Creating A Presence for the Arts

In Peoria, Lister was active in the Contemporary Arts Center. The center, housed in a former warehouse, spawned a revitalization of several blocks around it. “Two galleries and 15 to 20 studios sprung up,” Lister says. “We had jazz and blue concerts and other events that engaged the community.”

Having a building provides a base to rally the arts community, Lister says. “We have a robust arts community, with many individuals of extreme ability, but their story is not apparent,” she says. “It’s hard finding the art community.”

Retired art teacher Sue Johnson hopes The Doris can be the anchor for a North Main art district. “There are a lot of empty buildings that could become artist’s studios.”

The Gainesville Fine Arts Association and the Arts Association of Alachua County, along with a number of people, joined in creating The Doris, Lister says. The estate of Doris Bardon, a longtime activist in civic, environmental and artistic causes, provided initial funding.

“We’re a community cultural center, and we’re seeking to foster a broad spectrum and variety of art, including the literary arts and the musical arts,” Lister says.

The Doris is organized as a nonprofit organization. “Our focus is on being a community among ourselves and serving the entire community,” Lister says.

Johnson says that The Doris certainly is a cooperative venture, with dozens of volunteers committed to its success and growth, and no one getting a salary.

Building consensus on plans for The Doris involved a long “conversation,” Johnson says. “This has been an ongoing process,” she says. Steps include bringing the building up to code, scheduling classes, and arranging for shows in the gallery.

Philanthropy has been essential to The Doris. In addition to Barton’s founding gift, the art center received a gift from an anonymous donor that funded the system for hanging art, and it has received other donations. It is still seeking additional gifts for outreach programs and capital improvements, Johnson says.

Part of The Doris’ mission is to teach art to adults and children. “Arts are critical for the community and the world,” Johnson says. “Providing after-school art programs for the disadvantaged is close to my heart.”

Five artists-in-residence have studio space at The Doris. In exchange for free rent, they provide 12 hours of help to other artists monthly, Lister says. Classes offered have included ceramics, painting and printmaking. The Doris offers open studio time, during which groups of artists work side-by-side on paintings or sculptures. Exhibits have included pieces on anatomy and medical illustration.

Funding the arts always is challenging, Johnson says, yet the value to society is immense. “Art is important to the Gainesville economy as well as to the community’s emotional and cultural life,” Johnson says. “Art is our first language.”

Namesake Doris Barton had been a strong promoter of the arts, including founding the defunct Center for Modern Art in the Sun Center.

“I think Doris would give us a thumb’s up,” Johnson says.

What is a Co-Op?

Co-ops are global, with about 750,000 co-operatives serving 730 million members, according to the National Cooperative Business Association.

In the United State, about 72,000 co-op establishments operate, providing more than two million jobs and serving 120 million members—or four in 10 Americans, according to the association.

“Co-op advocates want growth, and they say the time is now, as wealth concentration has reached dangerous levels, large investment banks have crumbled and unemployment affects 10 percent of the American population,” notes an article on the AlterNet website.

The simple definition of a cooperative is that it is “owned, controlled and operated for the benefit of its members,” according to the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, based in Olympia, Wash.

Common types of co-ops include:

  • Consumer co-operatives, which are owned by the people who do business there, and often are food stores. “Historically, food co-operatives have tended to operate supermarkets and small grocery stores,” the NCDC website says.
  • Worker co-operatives are often formed by a small group of business partners. Another common form of shared ownership is the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), NCDC says.

The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives identifies other forms of co-ops, including:

  • Marketing co-ops, which are formed to sell products. Examples of marketing co-operatives are Land O’Lakes, Sunkist and Blue Diamond.
  • Purchasing co-ops, which buy supplies and goods and sell them at a reduced price to members.  Examples are ACE Hardware and Carpet One.
  • Service co-ops, as their name suggests, provide services. Credit unions and health-care providers are examples of service co-ops, the UW website says.

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