The small Montana town of Geraldine once again has a grocery store operating in the center of town. Prominently located at the corner of Main and Collins streets, the “Fresh Start” cooperative celebrated its grand opening on July 22 with a well-attend public barbecue and ribbon-cutting ceremony. Fresh Start organizers invested two years in planning and member recruitment to launch the co-op, which now boasts more than 120 shareholders.
Shaya Clark spearheaded the steering committee’s organizing process and has been responsible for marketing the new co-op enterprise. She held monthly meetings, conducted a community interest survey, and enrolled subscribers to raise capital for the store. “It took a lot of conversations with a lot of people. It meant raising financial support from our community and neighbors, and it took a lot of learning about operating a small retail store,” explains Clark.
Last November, the committee invited some 70 initial subscribers to vote on co-op bylaws and elect their first, five-member board of directors. Clark and her husband Corey were both elected to the Board, and Corey was elected President. The other directors include Vice-President Cody Joyce, Secretary/Treasurer Tricia Juedeman, and director Aaron Jones. Corey Clark says serving on the co-op board is a voluntary commitment for all newly elected directors in addition to their full-time jobs.
This spring the Fresh Start Board of Directors hired Beth Lewis, a resident of Geraldine, to manage the daily operations of the store. As general manager, Lewis is responsible for keeping the store stocked, and inventorying and ordering products. Lewis also works the cash register.
Lewis says she loves to interact with customers, “I love it when the customers come in. They know who I am and want to shake my hand or hug me.” Since she was hired, Lewis says she has observed an outpouring of support from most people in the small town of Geraldine. “I originally lived in Ohio in a small town – what we call a small town. It has a population of 25,000, and then I come to Geraldine, with a population of 250. The people in this community are so loving and so friendly.”
Long-term resident Lila Armstrong served on the steering committee and remains an active member of Fresh Start. Armstrong said that she was an inspired by a committee trip to the Big Flat Grocery co-op store in Turner at the beginning of the process, so she was committed to launching Fresh Start. Armstrong explained that many younger members are involved, invested, and taking leadership roles in Fresh Start, “We have a young board. The thirty-somethings have bought into having a local grocery store [co-op] and because they have, so will their children.”
Fresh Start Board President Corey Clark served with Armstrong on the steering committee during the co-op planning process. “It’s a different kind of business model from a sole proprietorship. As a member of the co-op, you’re one of the owners of the business. At a hundred dollars you can buy into our business and be a voting member. Every member can potentially be voted onto the board and participate in leadership and decision-making,” explained Clark.
Clark says Fresh Start serves a vital purpose as it’s currently the only place in Geraldine to buy groceries. Clark concluded that the cooperative business model can work in other rural communities like Geraldine if enough people are committed to its success. Technical assistance is available from the Montana Cooperative Development Center in Great Falls, which assisted Fresh Start organizers throughout their two-year process.