February 18 2013
"I like to say we aren't just creating a sense of community. We are creating an actual community of people who design and manage and own their own local economy"
-Brian Rothgery, Cofounder and Current Board Member of the People's Books Co-op.
Milwaukee's Riverwest Neighborhood has been a home to Cooperatives for decades. And cooperatives in general, trace back hundreds of years. However, with the formation of the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance, you may see even more co-op businesses opening their doors. This new wave of cooperatives in Riverwest started with the Riverwest Buyers Club in the 1990's.
"They decided in 1999 they wanted to open a co-op. They started raising money and gathering memberships" says Erin Christman, president of the board of the Riverwest Co-op Grocery and Cafe. "By 2001, they opened the doors with just a couple of shelves...open a couple hours a day." Riverwest Co-op Grocery and Cafe now has almost 3,000 members.
"Co-ops have a historically hard time raising starting capital because there isn't a single entrepreneur. Instead of relying on loans, we just sold memberships until we had enough to open the place." says Peter Murphy from the Riverwest Public House "The reason we started a bar in the first place is to have a lucrative funding engine for this larger organization that would then start more co-ops." With a little over 600 members, The Riverwest Public House has been instrumental in starting the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance. 100% of the profits, from the beer sales to the cover at the door for live music, goes to support the RCA.
The idea for the RCA was based in part from the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a large body of interrelated worker-owned co-ops under one corporate charter located in the Basque region of Spain.
"People come together to meet a need that isn't already been met." says Murphy.
An example of this is the People's Books Cooperative. "People's Co-Op formed for the love of an independent bookstore. The owner was retiring and the neighbors wanted to make sure it survived in the future" says Seth Schuester, Operations Director for People's Books. "It was a way to transition that business into something that was owned by the community in order to sustain it. It's one way to save those institutions that are important to us."
There are also a few misconceptions people may have about co-ops. "I think co-ops get a bad rap in the way unions get a bad rap" says Katie Jesse, events co-ordinator at Peoples Books. "People think there is this club that you can't join. Co-ops are what you make of them. It's supposed to be what representative democracy looks like."
More about the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance, along with info on the Riverwest Co-Op and Grocery, Riverwest Public House, People's Books and The Milwaukee River Advocated Co-op can be found online.