Sometimes the obvious bears restating: The communities that electric cooperatives serve must be active participants in creating and managing smart growth.
What is smart growth, and how can co-ops play a part? It starts with a focus on the local community. In most cases, electric co-ops are among the main economic engines in their region. To be in this position and not leverage it for the greater good would essentially be working against our own interests. After all, if the local community does not thrive, what will eventually happen to the co-op?
One key change I would advocate is for rural communities to spend less time and effort chasing out-of-town and out-of-state businesses and more time and effort helping locally owned enterprises. In his book Local Economy Solution, economist Michael Shulman argues that devoting resources to so-called pollinator businesses—local businesses that help grow other local businesses—will achieve a far greater and sustainable impact than wooing national retailers.
Consider Alaska’s Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA), which borrowed money through the USDA Rural Economic Development Loans and Grant program (REDL&G) to provide financing to create the state’s first community-owned cooperative grocery store in Fairbanks. The store supports local farmers and ranchers, promotes healthy-eating education, and provides more than 20 fulltime jobs.
In North Dakota, Basin Electric donated $50,000 to help a similar food co-op in Bismarck get off the ground. The store contracts with local farmers for fruits, vegetables, and meats. Basin Electric actively encourages its 2,000 employees to join the food co-op and even pays a portion of their membership equity.
If there are any opportunities to start a co-op or help nurture a young co-op already in formation, electric co-ops would be great mentors and advocates. It allows today’s co-op employees to experience what the founders of electric co-ops dealt with 75 years ago. The act of creating a new co-op is inspiring, especially as it grows and becomes successful. It also serves as an amazing learning opportunity for employees and directors.
Sometimes the scope of the problems facing communities can seem so daunting that we choose not to tackle it. In some cases, this may be the correct path, but it should be done with the realization that this means some towns will simply not exist. If your community has had school closures, small businesses shut their doors, or big box stores come in only to flee when profits slip, you know something needs to change.
Communities can continue to chase non-local businesses. Or you can gather the best and brightest around you and look at success stories from other areas. From there, you can make educated decisions that are focused on the long-term value in rebuilding the local cooperative economy. Investing your energy and your cooperative’s energy in a balanced approach to local growth may be contagious, especially when the positive impacts of growth begin to emerge. After all, investing in rural America is the cooperative difference.