Common Ground Article — Nelson’s co-op model thrives

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                        Kootenay Lake at Nelson (above) and a model of the Nelson Commons housing and commercial development (below).

Kootenay Co-op entrance(Common Ground in Creativity section, Current Edition, July 2015 )

In recent years, the concept of social enterprise has garnered growing attention among the progressive community, as if it were some newly discovered approach to business that could help redirect the delivery of goods and services while serving the common good. Turns out this old wine in new bottles has not only been around for some time, but it has been active in our midst.

On first thought, it might be a stretch to think of co-operatives as the original social enterprise, but it is not such a huge stretch if one looks at Western economic structures over the last 200 years. Of course, it would be negligent to not acknowledge that, for most of history, the principle of co-operation has been the cultural norm for many indigenous cultures. As capitalism gradually became the prevailing economic paradigm for Europe and then the “New World,” self reliance and the law of comparative advantage – so-called “free trade” – steadily took hold. Having just harnessed the first fossil fuel (coal) and possessing seemingly unlimited natural resources, it was not surprising that people embraced this new economic model as a panacea for many woes that had plagued humanity for generations.

However, as we know, genies are never easily coaxed back into the bottle and earlier iterations of capitalism have morphed into the hyper capitalism we have today; it is hard to ignore the necessity for alternatives that can provide the goods and services we require without destroying the life systems upon which we depend. Hence, the surge in new social enterprises.

Wikipedia defines a “social enterprise” as “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.”

This was clearly the case in 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England, created what is considered to be the first successful cooperative enterprise and it has since been used as a model for modern co-ops, following the seven Rochdale Principles that include:

Self-help: In co-operatives, people help each other whilst helping themselves by working together for mutual benefit.

Self-responsibility: Individuals within co-operatives act responsibly and play a full part in the organization.

Democracy: A co-operative will be structured so that members have control over the organization – one member, one vote.

Equality: Each member will have equal rights and benefits according to their contribution.

Equity: Members will be treated justly and fairly.

Solidarity: Members will support each other and other co-operatives.

Today, nearly 200 years later, here in BC we have many thriving co-operative enterprises. Two that stand out are Vancity and Mountain Equipment Co-op. MEC, as it is more commonly called – started in 1971 when a small group of west coast outdoor enthusiasts decided to create a retail business in a less conventional way and chose the co-op model. Forty-four years later – and with a membership of 3.3 million across Canada (10% of the population) – MEC stands out as an enterprise that provides exceptional products and service while providing generous support to a myriad of non-profits, particularly in the environmental realm.

And, of course, BC wouldn’t be the same were it not for Vancity which, with its 58 branches, holds the status as Canada’s largest community credit union. Vancity uses its $18.6 billion in assets to help improve the financial well-being of its members while, at the same time, helping to develop healthy communities that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. The range of support Vancity provides to all manner of progressive initiatives in our region is inspiring and exemplifies the benefits that can accrue when one focuses on the “commons.”

Tucked away in the southeast corner of our province is Nelson, the “Queen City” of the Kootenays and a beehive of co-ops. The city even boasts a co-op of co-ops – the Upper Columbia Co-op Council – offering a place where ideas and strategies can be shared. Unknown to most, Nelson boasts Canada’s largest member-owned natural foods co-operative with over 13,000 members. Bursting at the seams, the Kootenay Co-op had been looking for a new home for a number of years before securing a prime property in the heart of downtown that had been the home of a Super Valu come Extra Foods.

As a long time resident of the area, Russell Precious, who had grown Capers into an iconic Vancouver food destination in the 80s and 90s, teamed up with the Co-op to explore developing the site into a mixed-use project; it would include a new 20,000-square-foot co-op, 10,000 square feet of additional commercial space and 54 residential condominiums above.

In the process of determining the feasibility of the project, Russell’s long- time friend Keith Jardine introduced him to Andy Broderick, the VP of Community Investment at Vancity. The two of them struck it off and initiated a partnership that exemplifies the Rochdale Principle: “solidarity” or co-ops helping co-ops.

“When I was first approached, I thought it was a bit unusual and certainly audacious for a relatively small food co-op to initiate a project of this scale; perhaps that’s what got my attention” Andy recalls. “The Kootenay Co-op has done their homework and have brought together a recognized group of professionals to pull this off and this can serve as a prototype for other co-ops to think bigger.” After nearly four years of planning, the project is now well underway with 70% of both the commercial and residential units spoken for with completion scheduled for the summer of 2016.

Russell himself made the choice to settle in Nelson in 1987 even though it meant a lot of commuting back and forth to Vancouver during the Capers years. “I’ve always been a bit surprised how easily people get stuck in our large urban centres without really stepping back and looking at other options. Nelson has always been an epicentre of progressive activity – both political and cultural – as well as being located in one of the most beautiful corners of BC. We were looking for the best place to raise a family and have easy access to wilderness.”

It is not surprising the Nelson Commons project would take root in a place like Nelson as a social enterprise. If co-ops and other social enterprises are to have a significant impact in shifting to a more benign form of commerce like MEC and Vancity, they will need to scale up and take a more prominent role in our economy.

Today, we hear a growing plethora of voices who recognize this trend could lead to the unravelling of civil society as we know it. Paradoxically, this great theft of wealth from the “commons,” if left unchallenged, will pull the rug out from under the feet of the thieves themselves. The co-op model as the original social enterprise offers one antidote to an economy that has lost its moral compass.

Nelson Commons still has a good selection of two and three-bedroom units available. Scheduled completion is summer 2016. For more information, visit www.nelsoncommons.ca

This article appeared in the JULY 2015 print edition © Common Ground magazine.

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