MALONE, N.Y. — The United States Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development announced today, at a live event at the New Roots Cooperative Farm, that it will award three federal grants to support the work of the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), the Northeast’s Center for cooperative business education, training, and technical assistance.
The Institute will be awarded a two year $250,000 Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI), a $175,000 Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant (SDGG), and a $200,000 Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG). Funding will help create new businesses, new jobs, and address identified community needs in underserved communities.
The primary objective of the Cooperative Development Institute is to improve the economic condition of rural areas in the Northeast through the development of cooperatively owned businesses and enterprises. Katherine Bessey, Coordinating Director and Food System Specialist for the Institute highlighted the significance of the Center’s breadth and scope in the region, which the recent USDA grants will help support.
“With support from the USDA, CDI leverages its ability to partner with rural communities and organizations across the region to find solutions to identified needs and challenges, and then focus our unique technical assistance to address those needs and challenges through cooperative development and community engagement. The cooperative model, and the networking of cooperative ecosystems has proven a successful and resilient model during times of economic distress especially among underserved communities” Bessy continued. “Funding from the USDA, in partnership with state based foundations, state institutions and the private sector is integral in supporting our work, and provides the resources needed to serve the full range of cooperative enterprise: producer, consumer, worker, business owner, landowner, fishermen, and multi-stakeholder cooperatives. That’s a really broad, expansive impact of which we’re very proud.”
Since its founding in 1994, CDI’s technical assistance has supported the development of 163 new cooperatives and mutually-owned businesses across the Northeast.
Richard Mayfield, State Director of USDA Rural Development in New York spoke about the recent USDA award announcement for CDI, explaining, “collectively, these investments in research, asset acquisition, training as well as planning and development are down payments on the future success of our state and regional cooperatives. There is no question that this funding will ultimately translate to sustained prosperity for their members and our country. USDA Rural Development is extremely proud to be their partner — because we believe that when we work together, America prospers.”
In New York’s North Country, Ward Lumber, Inc., a 4th generation family owned lumber and building materials business operating stores in Jay and Malone, is one of the businesses that CDI is supporting in their transition to worker ownership as a result of the USDA grant support.
Ward Lumber Worker Cooperative will purchase the business, and convert Ward Lumber to a worker-owned operation. Their conversion to worker ownership is also supported by a $250,000 grant by New York’s Empire State Development Fund to assist in the purchase of the business. Ward Lumber staff are receiving technical assistance with legal structuring, securing additional financing from the Cooperative Fund of New England, and business and cooperative planning to make that cooperative transition successfully.
Paul Mintz, a longtime employee of the Jay store Ward Lumber Pro Sales team, shared his experience working with the Institute, “CDI has been instrumental in guiding our company through the process of converting to a worker cooperative. To say they have helped us navigate these uncertain waters is an understatement; without them, I’m not sure we’d have ever understood why we wanted to leave shore at all.”
Rob Brown, Director for CDI’s Business Ownership Solutions (BOS) program, met with staff of Ward Lumber and other businesses in the North County New York region while presenting a series of panels for the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA), an independent, nonprofit corporation with a transformational approach to building prosperity across northern New York. ANCA’s community-informed, results-driven strategies for local food producers, small business owners, would-be entrepreneurs and municipal innovators offer targeted interventions that are designed to keep wealth and value in local communities.
CDI supported ANCA in developing the Center for Businesses in Transition, providing training on worker ownership transitions for local North County partners engaged in outreach and education, and technical assistance to businesses interested in converting to worker-owned cooperatives.
USDA funds have also supported the conversion to worker ownership in Stamford, New York. Since 1963, the Railroad Avenue Supply Company has been a consistent community asset in Stamford. So much so that when the owner, Ralph Beisler, offered the business up for sale, workers immediately began researching the options for buying it. With guidance from Brown, workers pursued the conversion to a cooperative because they knew it was the best solution for combatting the trend of local stores succumbing to big-box competitors. “It’s a great satisfaction to know the business will continue beyond my tenure,” said Beisler.
“Selling to employees is a great, time-tested way to preserve small businesses and the jobs they provide in rural communities,” said CDI’s Rob Brown, who guided Beisler and the employees through the conversion to a worker cooperative. “The business owner is rewarded for a lifetime of hard work, local control is preserved, and importantly, employees who have helped build the business now have an ownership stake in the business.”
Wayne Stinson agreed. “As a long-time customer I couldn’t be more pleased to learn that the store became employee owned. When I heard Ralph was considering selling, I suggested that the cooperative model would be an excellent alternative to a private sale. I’m really excited that this was the best opportunity for everyone, including customers like me who want to support locally owned and controlled businesses,” said Stinson
RCDG funding has also supported work in CDI’s New England Resident Owned Communities program (NEROC). This grant helps communities like Country Sky Mobile Home Park, who in 2018 benefited from CDI’s assistance after a septic system failure forced former management of the park to serve eviction notices to residents and to plan to shut down.
Ultimately, Country Sky Mobile Home residents chose to cooperatively purchase their community for $265,000. CDI helped the residents’ cooperative raise a total of $1.8 million to both purchase the park and to rebuild its water and sewer infrastructure with financing from ROC USA Capital, New York State Housing Finance Agency, Enterprise Community Partners, and a Community Development Block Grant sponsored by Clinton County. After the transition the community renamed itself the New Beginnings Mobile Home Association.
Speaking about the transition to resident ownership with the help of CDI, and the threat of eviction park residents faced initially, new resident owner and Board Secretary Tina Hart said, “It really looked hopeless and it was kind of like praying for a miracle, and the miracle came – that’s what these people are. It’s our miracle,”
Going forward CDI will provide New Beginnings Board members support with managing their community for the duration of their mortgage, at least 10 years.
In addition to its RCDG funded work, the USDA Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant will provide resources for CDI staff to help socially disadvantaged communities, in particular. SDGG funds help CDI support BIPOC cooperatives across the region like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, formed in Petersburg, New York, catalyzing a growing alliance of Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian farmers throughout New England and Upstate New York building collaborative initiatives in support of Northeast farmers of color. Through the SDGG CDI has also been able to work with groups like the In Living Color Herbalist Collective in Lawrence New York, working with BIPOC herbalists to advocate for and to serve the needs of BIPOC herbalists throughout the Northeast; and groups like the New York State Black Farmers Co-op in Naples, a collective of Black farmers across the state working to form a Black-led farmer cooperative business to help improve Black farmers’ access to agricultural markets across the state.
CDI utilizes its Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant funding to assist BIPOC and New American communities to create food system cooperatives and cooperative business enterprises, and is now working with New Americans, Native Americans and People of Color throughout the Northeast to create cooperative farms, businesses and land trusts that increase equity and access in our economy, Through support from the USDA’s SDGG CDI will be able to continue its work with fourteen different cooperative groups in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York in the coming year.
To date the Cooperative Development Institute has provided educational and training programs for approximately 16,400 people throughout the Northeast. Thanks in part to the support of the recent USDA grant awards that impact will continue to grow and expand, significantly.
–USDA Office of Rural Development
Cooperative Development Institute