Until relatively recently, a great deal of peoples’ social drinking and general conviviality took place in spaces that were collectively owned by their patrons. Fraternal clubs (such as the Elks, Moose, KofC, Masons, etc.), union halls, and the like served as community hubs as well as a place to grab a pint with friends, and they were ultimately accountable to the needs of their members. However, over the last half-century, as the memberships of such organizations have aged and they have failed to recruit a critical mass of new members (for a number of complex reasons), the prevalence of such spaces has declined precipitously. In Burlington, this can be seen in the number of old buildings that used to serve that purpose (the Masons building at the top of Church Street, the Ethan Allen Club on College street, and the old Eagles Aerie on Maple street) that are now put to commercial and educational purposes, with the only apparent survivors being the VFW post on South Winooski Avenue and the St. John’s Club.
Filling the void left by these community-owned social spaces has been a proliferation of bars. Differentiated by price, culture, and clientele, they nonetheless all share one key feature: they are for-profit businesses whose ultimate goal is to part their patrons from as many of their dollars as the market will bear. As a result, while communities can and do form around such spaces, the presence of the profit motive means that the sense of belonging that community members feel is, at best, incomplete. If the long-term financial interests of the owner comes into conflict with the long-term interests of the community that calls his or her establishment home, that the former will prevail over the latter tends to be a foregone conclusion.
This trend of moving from community-owned social spaces to alienated for-profit bars has been proceeding apace for decades, but, in the past few years, a countervailing force has emerged: cooperative brew-pubs. Owned by their patrons and governed democratically by the same cooperative principles by which City Market is organized, the first example of this model in action was the Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery of Austin, Texas. Organizing began on the project in 2006, and the doors opened on their space in 2010. It was a smashing success, and by 2014 the community-owned brew-pub could boast over 3,200 member-owners and employs 27 people. Inspired by Black Star’s example, similar projects have taken root across the U.S. (examples from Michigan and Seattle), and I believe it is high time Burlington followed suit. While the craft brew market is pretty saturated (three new craft-breweries have opened in the Burlington area in the last month), a brew-pub co-op would offer something that none of the bars in Burlington are structurally capable of offering: authentic community ownership and control of our social space, the profits of which would be returned to the members, with a portion used to fund democratically-determined community projects.
As to how we get there from here, as a modest first step I’ve created a Facebook page on which supporters can congregate to discuss the nascent project. Once we hit a critical mass of supporters, the next step will be to collect formal pledges from prospective members to buy a share of the co-op should we choose to launch it. As we collect those pledges, we will need to conduct a study to determine the total amount of start-up capital we’d need to accumulate, and we will need to figure out exactly how to scrape that sum together. Then, once the members are organized and the dollars are wrangled, we’ll be well on the way to creating a beautiful new Third Place for Burlington!
Matt Cropp is Co-Host and Co-Founder of Cooperative Vermont. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.