Alberta has a long, proud history of cooperative movements that date back to the early pioneers of the province who had no one to rely on but themselves. Whether dealing with hard-to-get consumer goods or eastern dominated banking systems, early settlers found a way to overcome these shortcomings by creating cooperative merchandise stores and financial credit unions.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and we here in this historic coal mining town, once again find ourselves confronted with some of the same issues faced by our ancestors. Around Alberta, rural towns are losing their population as youth move to large urban areas for education and employment. Compound that with the long arm of the cities, with their mega malls and big box stores developed on the urban fringe, and we watch and worry as the commercial base of our small towns further erodes.
Trust rural Albertans to confront these problems by reaching back into their history to initiate change. When the Work and Play store in Blairmore was moved to its new location next to Allied Hardware its old location, formerly known as Peuchen Block, became empty.
My profession as a realtor in a small town brings me face to face with the challenges of financing commercial development here. In this we are not unique; most other towns face similar challenges. As far as the big lending institutions are concerned, we may as well be located on the “dark side of the moon.” We simply don’t exist and we definitely don’t qualify.
Chances are the building would still be empty today, if not for a group of locals who seized the opportunity when Alberta Community and Co-operative Association (ACCA) offered a pilot project named “Unleashing Local Capital,” for Alberta rural communities.
The purpose of this project funded through Rural Alberta Development Fund and administrated by ACCA, is to “empower communities to invest locally, direct their own economic development, and reduce dependency on government supports.”
When this opportunity was first advertised, our local Community Futures board was on the ball and made an application for the Crowsnest Pass.
Our application was one of the few successful early applicants chosen, and now we are at the forefront of a budding cooperative movement in our province.
Peuchen Block was chosen as the first project and is being brought back to life as a place of business and a home to four beautiful apartments, right in the center of town. It was selected because of its strong structural bones and doable size for the Cooperative’s first project.
The cooperative developing the Peuchen Block is known as the Crowsnest Opportunity Development Cooperative (CODC). It has 33 founding members, each owning one share. “The founding principle of CODC is ‘One Member, One Vote,’ meaning each member has equal say in the operations of the cooperative.” The members elect a Board of Directors and the directors are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the cooperative.
The guiding philosophy of the investment has a twofold purpose. First, it must have a sound business plan in order to minimize financial risk to members who have invested in shares. The second, and critical component which makes the investment attractive to many, is the community social component. Many of us have walked past store front windows covered by paper, thinking how good it would be to see the paper removed and a business flourishing inside.
The risk for a single investor to undertake the rejuvenation of the Peuchen Block was too great, not to mention finding a bank to finance a project like that would have been next to impossible. The cooperative business model made good business sense – it spreads the risk and makes it manageable.
As an added and most important benefit, the shares bought in the cooperative qualify as an RRSP contribution for self-directed RRSP plans. The Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) offers such self-directed plans through Concentra Trust. The benefit is the share purchaser is able to place the purchase in his or her RRSP and get the tax deferment. At the same time, investors see their money at work in our community, instead of in some distant location.
Disclosure: the writer is a member of the co-operative. Peuchen Block is 100% leased and we are having an Open House Wednesday October 9th from 4 pm to 6:30 pm. All are welcome to attend. The Co-op is still looking for new members.