USDA funds help reopen town’s only grocery

By James Crandall, Elaine Cranford, Amanda Bergstrom

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 University of Nebraska- Lincoln Cooperative Development Center (NCDC), which receives funding under the Rural Cooperative Development Grant program administered by USDA Rural Development, was the primary speaker at this first meeting. He explained the concept of community ownership through 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.

Survey shows broad support for co-op

The community response showed widespread support for the concept of a grocery co-op. A committed, hard- working steering committee was formed to begin the process of studying the feasibility of a grocery store and 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 biweekly as a group, with subcommittees meeting at additional times to move the process forward quickly.

Membership drive launched

The cooperative was incorporated in May 2012 as the Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market. The steering committee, now a board of directors, conducted a membership drive to capitalize the new business allowing them to purchase and remodel the former store, hire a manager and purchase the inventory.

More than 140 people have bought ownership shares in the cooperative, and new members are still being added to the ownership base. Co-op members, board members and other volunteers were involved in the remodeling of the store, installing coolers, freezers and shelving.

Board members, co-op members and volunteers scanned inventory and stocked all the shelves in preparation for opening. The market has been advertising locally and through social media.

The Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market celebrated its official “soft” opening on Feb. 3, with a preview of the new store for co-op members and donors. The store opened for business to the general public the next day. The market was slated to hold a grand opening on May 25, including a ribbon cutting and additional activities.