March 12, 2010

Maine co-ops fill need financially and socially


— By . KIM

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday., Feb.19, 2009. Jonah Fertig and Hanifa Washington prepare vegetables for borscht at the Local Sprouts Cooperative's kitchen in Monument Square in Portland today.

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday., Feb.19, 2009. Kennedy Barteaux measures floor joists in the basement of a home in Portland for a weatherization inspection. Barteaux is a owner of Hour Weatherization Co-Op.

Staff Writer

These days, Local Sprouts -- a fledgling Portland-based cooperative -- is cooking up a regular stream of meals for its members and providing catering services for nonprofit organizations and others holding events.

The people behind the cooperative envision a time when it will provide locally produced foods to more people, operate a community-supported cafe and provide a greater source of income to its worker-owners.

''It's sustaining itself,'' said Hanifa Washington, one of the four worker-owners. ''We definitely want more.''

The hope is to eventually support six worker-owners, teach culinary skills through the planned cafe and expand its community-supported kitchen, which allows members to order meals prepared by the cooperative each week. The endeavor began about a year and a half ago and was incorporated in July.

Local Sprouts is just one type of cooperative found in Maine. Other member-owned entities include food-buying clubs, credit unions and cooperatives formed for housing, to provide electricity or to sell the wares of artisans, farmers and fishermen.

Interest in cooperatives tends to increase in difficult economic times, according to those who provide financing and technical assistance to such endeavors.

''My sense of human nature is in times of need, people are more willing to work together than in times of bounty,'' said Rebecca Dunn, executive director of the Cooperative Fund of New England, a Massachusetts-based community-development loan fund that has been busier since the fall.

Interest in the Portland Food Cooperative and the associated food-buying club, Food Now, has been up since the fall, said Ed Democracy, the co-op's vice president.

He sees the economy as one factor, based on the larger number of inquiries about food stamps.

The buying club, an intermediate step before the co-op establishes a storefront, started accepting them recently.

While the possibility of increased buying power is one motivation, members are often attracted to the democratic ethos and mission of co-ops.

That was certainly the case for Washington and Jonah Fertig, another Local Sprouts founder. Both want to support local food producers, make those products more accessible and share their skills.

''Co-ops start, generally, because there's a need that hasn't been met,'' said Washington, who also works as a musician and in a culinary arts program for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Big questions about local control, community and the nature of work are what motivated Fertig.

''As a worker, as a cook, how can we cook in ways we feel empowered and cook in ways that support out community in the process?'' asked Fertig, who also works in a restaurant and as a community organizer.

A group called Cooperative Maine is organizing a conference about co-ops next weekend in Augusta. Larry Dansinger, one of the organizers, hopes it will help lead to a blossoming of co-ops in Maine.

''Our goal is that it will be a renaissance and not just a temporary thing,'' said Dansinger, a community organizer from Monroe. ''Cooperatives offer not just economic benefits, but also social benefits rewarding experiences.''

Fertig also is contemplating starting another cooperative to create affordable housing and conserve environmental resources.

Some of the inspiration comes from other housing cooperatives, including Faire Bande à Part Housing Cooperative in Lewiston.

While plans for that cooperative began before the recession, the current condition of the economy could make cooperative housing more appealing, said Ari Rosenberg, a founder and member.

Her co-op was structured so that none of the six members went into debt to buy the downtown building. Should she leave the co-op, Rosenberg would get the money she paid for her share of the corporation plus interest, the amount of rent paid that went to the mortgage's principal and the cost of improvements approved by members.

''Our rent is less than it was when we were renting, and we're saving money because we're going to get it back when we leave,'' she said.

The co-op is set up so that if it dissolves, any money left over after paying the shareholders will be donated to a co-op or nonprofit organization in Lewiston or Auburn.

The proceeds of a new weatherization cooperative will support its worker-owners and benefit Hour Exchange Portland, an organization in which members earn and spend ''time dollars'' by providing services to each other.

A structure that gives each person a say in the business is a big reason that Kennedy Barteaux is excited about the venture.

''It's the openness of it, the democratic way things are decided that's really appealing. I wouldn't want to be in a traditional business setting,'' said Barteaux, who is one of the two worker-owners.

The Cooperative Development Institute, based in Massachusetts, has seen an increase in the number of efforts seeking technical assistance through its rural cooperative development program.

The past fiscal year had about 65 intakes, compared to the more typical 30 to 35 in previous years, according to Jen Gutshall, a cooperative development specialist.

The organization has no funding for urban cooperatives, but has fielded inquiries, with the most concentrated interest in worker co-ops, which Gutshall believes is related to the insecurity of the job market.

Consumers look for security and the ability to pool resources for a service, whether financial or otherwise, in difficult economic times, said John Murphy, president of the Maine Credit Union League. He said similar patterns have been in play in other economic downturns.

''Back through the late '80s, early '90s, consumers looked to credit unions for the safety, the security, the local ownership and control -- all things that give people a level of comfort,'' he said.

Credit unions in the state saw assets grow 7.7 percent last year, compared to 6 percent the year before.

Loans increased 5.1 percent, up from 4 percent the year before. Savings grew 6 percent, down from 6.5 percent. Murphy considered the 2008 growth very good, given the economic downturn.

Staff writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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