Economic development for small towns needs to include the development of cooperative stores
But unlike countries like the UK, the US doesn't have as strong a record of retail and banking cooperatives operating on large scale.
As US rural communities depopulate, and as retail firms focusing on rural markets run into financial problems--for example, Alco, a company serving small communities, has declared bankruptcy and all there stores, almost 200, will close and community residents will be left with big gaps in their retail options.
From "Former Kansas retailer Alco Stores seeks bankruptcy" (Associated Press):
Alco Stores Inc. has 198 stores in 23 states. The Coppell, Texas, company says most of its stores are in towns of fewer than 5,000 people and regions of fewer than 16,000 where there is no direct competition from national or regional broad-line retailers. Alco has 3,000 employees.While the UK's Cooperative Group has had financial problems over the past few years because of the banking crisis' impact on their bank division, cooperatives can be a way for communities to step in and own and operate businesses that would otherwise fail. The group has 4,900 stores and business locations, although they've sold off some divisions, like pharmacies, to raise capital.
Alco had $474 million in net sales from continuing operations in its latest fiscal year. That represented a 2 percent decline from the year before. The company closed 14 stores early in the current fiscal year.
I wrote about some of the independent "community serving retail" initiatives in the UK earlier in the year, "Community Owned Retail -- Resources from the UK." While the University of Nebraska Extension Service has an initiative on community retail, it pales compared to the efforts of the UK's Plunkett Foundation.
The Plunkett Foundation is focused on quality of life in rural communities and because of the shrinking population in many rural areas, they have developed programs promoting co-operatives, community shops, community pubs, and other enterprises.
-- Publications, Plunkett Foundation.
Similarly, I have been impressed with the European retail business network Spar, which functions similarly to how Ace Hardware or True Value Hardware organizations function in the US, as a wholesaler and business support group owned by and serving local retailers. (Similar organizations and relationships exist in the US supermarket industry.)
This simplifies the ability to support stores at the local level when they would normally lack the resources of a national company or organization.
A similar model is the company Eurocash, which is a wholesaler supporting small independently owned shops in Poland ("The man who bet on tradition," Financial Times).
We need similar operations in the US to support store development in underserved communities.
Also see "Yoga, dance and microbrewery beer at UK's first community pub," (Financial Times).