Community Supported Enterprises

Community Supported Enterprises
By Helen Labun Jordan, Vermont Agricultural Development Coordinator, Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets

Community Supported Agriculture has become a familiar part of Vermont’s economic landscape. Today, there are similar models emerging in other business fields-- “Community Supported Enterprises.” This concept responds to the idea that many businesses, especially in Vermont’s most rural areas, play an irreplaceable part in community life that isn’t captured in the daily sales transactions. Customers and community members are willing to honor that role through creative financial support that can take many forms.

Sometimes support for a community business has a traditional, more or less charitable, aspect. One example of this is the Adamant Co-op, a mainstay in the Adamant village outside of Montpelier . A variety of community fundraisers, from town-prepared holiday cookie tins to a perpetual book sale, support this country store and gathering place. Since 2002, the Blackfly Festival has provided both a popular spring celebration and fundraising opportunity for the Co-op. The Festival happens this year, with parade, grill and blackfly pie contest, on May 17th http://www.adamantcoop.org/. Proceeds from food sales at the event return to the Co-op.

Other businesses are starting to adopt more complicated community investment structures. The Preservation Trust of Vermont has been a leader in helping businesses connect with community in financial arrangements that meet both business owners’ and community investors’ needs. Keeping downtown businesses healthy furthers the Preservation Trust’s goal of maintaining vibrant Vermont towns that reflect both their unique history and a strong future.

The 2008 Historic Preservation Conference in Brandon , Vermont , highlighted several examples of community support for local enterprises. The 150 year-old Craftsbury General Store recently developed a system to sell shares to community members. The current owner pointed out that he was aware of the community’s desire for a stable local store from day one. . . when he arrived at work at 5:00 am to find 15 local residents waiting to evaluate him. The shares added monetary investment to back up this concern in a structure that ensures that a community store will continue to exist, even if the current owner leaves. The funds raised through share sales will help pay for changes needed to improve the store’s earnings.

A second example draws inspiration specifically from Community Supported Agriculture. Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick will open May 27th with the help of 50 local subscribers. Like a CSA model, where subscribers pre-purchase a share of the farm’s harvest, Hardwick area residents pre-purchased a share of meals at Claire’s in the form of $1,000 coupon books. The shares, combined with funding from the Preservation Trust and loans from community members, helped the restaurant’s organizers get their project off the ground. Read more about Claire’s and Community Supported Restaurants at the New Vermont Cooking blog: http://newvermontcooking.blogspot.com/. The Bee’s Knees in Morrisville is also exploring this model for growing their own restaurant http://www.thebeesknees-vt.com/.

These two examples are some of the most recent organizations to give community members a significant avenue for investing in a business they believe their town needs. An earlier Preservation Trust conference featured the Powell, Wyoming , Mercantile, a downtown department store started in 2002 using shares sold directly to community members. This Mercantile provides basic goods close to home (the next closest location was 50 miles away) and shareholder rules ensure that the local community will always own their store, not lose their ownership position to investors from far away. And, of course, the cooperative movement of member-owned stores has a long history. The Adamant Co-op, in fact, was the first cooperatively owned store in Vermont .

To find out more about the Preservation Trust’s work visit http://archive.ptvermont.org/ The Preservation Trust also served as an early fiscal agent for Local First Vermont, a group dedicated to supporting Vermont ’s independent business community. Read about their work at http://www.localfirstvermont.org.