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Great lakes center pursues innovative co-op solutions.

Innovation is alive and well in the Upper Midwest, where cooperation is a vital part of the rich fabric of the region. Community leaders here embrace collaboration, often involving cooperatives, as a market solution that benefits people and their communities. More co-ops are headquartered in Minnesota and Wisconsin than in any other states. The two states are home to more than 1,500 cooperative businesses owned by more than 6.3 million residents.

Upper Midwest cooperatives include businesses that are on the Fortune 500--CHS Inc. and Land O' Lakes Inc.--as well as co-ops that are leaders in the fields of healthcare (Health-Partners HMO) and financial services (Thrivent credit union), all headquartered in the Twin Cities area. The region is also home to cooperatives that operate critical access hospitals in rural Wisconsin and to worker-owned coops, such as Union Cab and Isthmus Engineering, both in Madison, Wis.

Electric and telecommunications utility co-ops provide service across rural and suburban areas of the region. The Great Lakes area is home to a growing number of rural and urban grocery and senior housing cooperatives as well hundreds of farm supply, fuel, and grain cooperatives; credit unions; mutual insurance businesses and Farm Credit associations.

Partnering with USDA, others

The Great Lakes Cooperative Center (GLCC) is a public/private partnership between the Cooperative Network, the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives and USDA. The Center has received Rural Cooperative Development Grant funding from USDA the past two years and has leveraged significant private funds for cooperative development activities.

This unique arrangement maximizes the use of federal resources and generates a strong return on investment through the Center's economic development activity that is far greater than its federal, state or private partners could independently match. In its short existence, the GLCC has created or prevented the loss of more than 50 jobs.

During the past 18 months, GLCC has focused on assisting community leaders in developing new cooperative businesses across the Upper Midwest, as well as assisting established co-ops in taking advantage of new opportunities to better meet the needs of their members.

The Center is focusing its work in several specific arenas, including energy, healthcare, senior housing, agriculture and local food. Assistance provided includes conducting feasibility analysis, business plan and program development, co-op creation and governance, education/outreach and technical assistance.

Co-op approach to healthcare

In the healthcare sector, GLCC is working to promote greater access to affordable, quality healthcare for agricultural producers in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Farmers' Health Cooperative of Wisconsin (FHCW) is now bringing a price-competitive, comprehensive healthcare plan to Wisconsin farmers and agribusinesses, particularly in the state's vitally important, $26 billion dairy industry.

GLCC is working to create a similar healthcare cooperative for Minnesota agriculture: 40 Square Cooperative Solutions. The Center is also providing technical support to the newly developed Common Ground Health Care Cooperative in Wisconsin and other healthcare cooperatives that are being developed across the nation to meet a fall deadline for offering competitive, high-quality health care plans on new state health insurance exchanges.

In the area of senior co-op housing, GLCC is playing a key role in hosting a national conference each year in Minnesota, conducting workshops featuring key issues that senior housing cooperatives face and facilitating the exchange of "best practices" among the cooperatives' managers. This past year, the conference assisted about a dozen rural cooperatives through the exchange of board policies and other technical information.

Co-op roles in energy, local foods, education

In the energy sector, GLCC is working with three Wisconsin electric cooperatives to create an energy-efficiency program that will provide members (many of them low-income families) with access to energy-efficiency technologies that can save money for rural home and business owners.

To promote local foods, GLCC offers a diverse array of services to developing and existing cooperatives. These include the Deerfield Grocery Cooperative, Wisconsin Food Hub, North America Aronia Cooperative and Spring Rose Growers Cooperative. Working with the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, GLCC is providing these important job generators with business planning information, training and other technical resources.

Finally, the GLCC is working with Wisconsin's 12 CESA's (Cooperative Education Services Agencies) to conserve scarce K-12 school district financial resources through the common purchase of transportation fuels and through development of a model bus transportation contract. This activity is consistent with the common purchasing role created for these school district cooperatives by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1964.

Most Upper Midwest cooperatives had very humble beginnings, but now serve as major economic anchors in their communities. GLCC is working with those cooperatives to ensure the region's strong cooperative tradition continues to provide the foundation for a strong rural economy.

By Bill Oemichen, President & CEO, Cooperative Network
COPYRIGHT 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Business - Cooperative Service
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Title Annotation:CO-OP MONTH
Author:Oemichen, Bill
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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