For the last two days I’ve been in Red Deer doing some filming for the ACCA (Alberta Communities and Cooperatives Association), at their 2nd annual Gathering of Alberta Cooperatives conference. I really love it when my work involves filming things that I’m already passionate about, where I get to meet great people, hear inspiring stories, and get even more excited about doing something really epic in my own community. Throughout the two day conference I heard several people share their own personal stories of using the “cooperative” model to create amazing things in their communities. Things like entrepreneurs getting together to create an artisanal bakery that captures the old time feel and flavour of a heritage town in rural Alberta. Or the Battle River Railway project, where a big group of farmers got together and raised almost $5 Million in capital to purchase a short line railway track to get their grain to market.
But the stories are about so much more than just innovative business ideas to revitalize small towns. It’s about HOW they’re doing it. In a nutshell, these people are solving massive problems in their communities and creating huge economic development, by collecting local investment from people in their towns who want to support a local business and also collect a healthy rate of return in the long term. Because the system is built on trust and supported by a large network within the community, which typically includes professional advisors and entrepreneurs with decades of experience within the community, the success rate of these businesses is mind boggling. We heard stories of communities setting up Opportunity Development Cooperatives to purchase vacant buildings on main street, fixing them up and leasing out space to local business owners, and generating dividends to their share holders within the 2nd year of operation! So, yes these communities are creating economic development, but they’re also building much more important things, like social capital and a sense of community identity.
Needless to say, I would LOVE to see something like this happen in Bashaw, possibly related to our thriving musical theatre scene, maybe something that spruces up a couple of the run down buildings on main street, or maybe something for young mothers with preschoolers so they wouldn’t have to travel to other communities for something to do with their kids. I don’t know “what”, but this idea of using a co-operative sure seems like it should be the “how”.
As I quickly packed up my video gear this afternoon, I wondered how slippery the roads would be on the drive home to Bashaw through the first real snow fall of the year. I got the car loaded up and said goodbye to a whole lot of people, some of them very familiar faces from various events I’ve attended with FarmOn, and some of them new friends. And this is where I got to thinking about hugging. Here was a group of about 100 or so people, from all over the province, all kinds of different backgrounds and a wide range of ages. But every one of them was there because of a giant passion for “building community”. You could just tell that people were excited about going home and doing something in their community. People were smiling! And unlike the typical conferences you go to, where people are chatty and nice but kind of just give you that superficial “nice to meet you, take care” and then continue on their way, these people were hugging, and lingering, and sharing information and stories. And it was blizzarding outside!! Maybe it was just the fact that people who are drawn to the co-operative model are people who really care about people, and actually WANT to work together, but I could just feel that there was a level of love in the room that isn’t typical of conferences.
I knew that when I went to thank my clients and say goodbye, that I would definitely get a big hug from Dan Ohler and Judy McMillan Evans, because I’ve worked with them before and I just know that they hug. I also got some great hugs from Mike and Juanita who helped me coordinate interviews all day, and they also already knew that they could expect a hug from me. And then there were the goodbyes where you just weren’t sure whether to go for the hug or just the solid handshake. Is he/she a hugger? I don’t know! Oh my gosh, what if I go in for the hug and they stick out their hand and it gets all awkward and weird? Well, never happened. Turns out co-op people are almost all huggers! And that works out pretty good for me, because if you know me, you know that I, too, am a hugger.
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