Point of cooperation

(First published in the October 17, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Local advocates debut what they hope to be an annual conference to promote the cooperative business model


Polly Dalton and Lyn Ciurro, organizers of the first annual Coop Con in downtown Stevens Point Nov. 1-2

When Polly Dalton lived in the Fox Valley area, she didn’t find many people familiar with the cooperative business model. Most mistakenly thought the term “co-op”—as these businesses are popularly known—meant some kind of non-profit.

Dalton and Lyn Ciurro still hear that a lot in the Stevens Point area. But there’s been a recent resurgence in co-ops, and the pair want to educate people — especially local entrepreneurs—about this business concept with a conference called Coop Con on Nov. 1–2 in downtown Stevens Point.

The aim is to spread the word about this model of incorporation, the benefits and principles, and concepts business owners can take away even if they don’t operate a legally defined co-op. Another goal is to offer continuing professional development and networking for those already involved in a co-op.

Cooperative businesses are owned and managed by members — customers, employees, other stakeholders—rather than a single owner or shareholders.

Most other cooperative conferences around the U.S. focus on specific industries, like large dairy co-ops or credit unions. Dalton and Ciurro want to spread the word that the cooperative model can apply to many kinds of business.

Their own experiences prove that. Dalton and her husband Oren Jakobson founded Rising Sand Organics farm, which is now based on the cooperative model of workers collectively owning the business. Lyn Ciurro works at the Stevens Point Coop, which is nearing its 50th year, and operates on the membership co-op model.

The 1920s and 30s saw a surge of cooperative businesses open during the Great Depression, especially in rural areas. Another wave of co-ops emerged in the 1960s, as part of the norm-breaking trend of the time. The past few years as seen another revival. “We’re a member of the next wave,” Dalton says.

There are various ways a cooperative can work. For example, anyone can buy groceries at the Stevens Point Coop, but members get a discount. In other setups, workers and/or producers collectively own the company. The benefits include lower risk, shared equity, higher productivity and stability, and more democratic decision making. There are also tax benefits.

Some downsides: Since decisions are made collectively, they might not necessarily be made by those with the best business acumen. Decisions tend to be made more slowly and conservatively.

Dalton and Jakobson started their farm as a standard LLC, but quickly realized the finances worked out much better under the cooperative model. That meant transparency and giving up control. “There’s humility that’s involved,” says Dalton, who also serves on the Stevens Point City Council.

During Coop Con, attendees will learn about different co-op structures and decision-making processes, participate in workshops on how to “co-op” a business idea, and hear from successful Wisconsin coops such as Northwind Solar (Stevens Point), Outpost Natural Foods (Milwaukee), and South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative.

Dalton and Ciurro already have had success with their workshop “Coop Your Idea,” which they’ve presented in Madison and Milwaukee. In the workshop during Coop Con, people can bring their business idea and see how it might work as a cooperative.

Admission to the conference Nov. 1-2 cost $60 for both days, including meals. Coop Con includes workshops, keynote speakers and entertainment, at Farmshed, the IDEA Center, and The Church of the Intercession (all within walking distance of each other). Details and registration at cooperativepoint.com.