Banding Together for your Local Economy

Bouncing back from business closures

Working and living in small towns makes business closures personal for community leaders. Whether the reason is owner retirement, changing trends or international competition, closures stick with us. Communities suffer each loss in tax revenue, jobs, leadership and morale. To address the voids, University of Illinois Extension shares insightful counter strategies in various ways. Please see related articles archived at www.extension.illinois.edu/blogs/building-entrepreneurial-communities:

  • Illinois Main Street Tools for Success
  • NGA report on “Rural Prosperity through the Arts & Creative Sector”
  • The Power of Pop-up Shops
  • Downtown Success Indicators in Small Cities
  • The Future of your Business – Without You

There are recovery tactics to use when owner’s shut doors and corporations pull out.  Workshops like “Reversing the Exodus” pertain to retaining youth and understanding generational differences. Varied workshops offer strategies for keeping our communities open and in business. Alternative business structures deserve a closer look too:

Community Supported Enterprises (CSEs) arise from groups that organize and raise funds to keep something open and/or available. Organizers and contributors typically do not expect a financial return- they are motivated by making the local quality of life better. Community members have pooled funds plus invested time and energy into grocery stores, restaurants, book stores and other establishments considered essential to the their communities. CSEs can operate ‘essentials’ like car dealers, doctors, vets, builders, affordable housing, childcare services and more. What about intervening to prevent job loss from an impending closure? CSEs can take over an existing business soon-to-close or be a start-up venture.

There is a basic sequence of necessary steps:

  1. Confirm and document an on-going need. This is to separate emotions and memories away from a real void. Use studies and data to support decisions.
  2. Prepare a community-wide economic development strategy if one doesn’t exist & make certain that any/all CSE’s fit.

A common example of a failure to communicate on the first two points is the long shuttered but much beloved local theater… many communities have had enthusiastic groups organize to save them that never connected to a broader economic development strategy. A supported project means that it is deemed essential and embraced by the larger community.

  1. Obtain solid legal advice about organizational structures. Add cooperatives to corporations, LLCs and other options looked at.
  2. Fund raising is best done with Certified Public Accountant (CPA) oversight and legal advice.
  3. Have a core group of dedicated and committed leaders. CSE’s are hard work; require selflessness and face many challenges.

So why take on the challenge of a CSE? Because the loss/void of a local resource is a greater pain to bear… Lost jobs, youth leaving, a valued service gone. As current business owners retire, communities are impacted in many ways. Landmarks and meeting places that add to the attraction of a place are special and more than just another business. CSE’s are legitimate and powerful economic development tools to explore.

Cooperatives (Co-ops) is an organizational structure that can be applied to many businesses. Beyond agriculture, utilities and artists, the CO-OP is alive and doing well! In particular, I found numerous examples in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Illinois can certainly benefit from this organizational model too. We have a resource in Sean Park, Program Manager for the Illinois Cooperative Development Center at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University. Sean’s phone number is 217-248-0079 and his e-mail is ms-park@wiu.edu.

Groceries, healthcare providers, apartments and small businesses of all types are turning to this business model with a good survival rate. Cooperative; “a business owned & democratically controlled by people that use the services”… your local coffee shop, your main employer… and more.

Co-op members, like Community Supported Enterprise boards and investors, focus on making the community better. For example, Investment Cooperatives buy, rehab and repurpose properties. Empty commercial buildings and deteriorating housing are often the targets. Members share the common goals of reducing vacancies and raising neighborhood property values. Everyone benefits.

Co-ops can also save local jobs, stepping in when aging owners are ready to close or large corporations make decisions that shake a community to its’ core. Employee co-ops are a fast growing segment because they address big problems.

CSE’s and CO-OP’s are legitimate and powerful economic development tools to explore.