Why Burlington Needs A Co-op Brew-Pub

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.

Black Start Co-op Members Gather for the Unveiling of their New Space.

Black Star Co-op Members Gather for the Unveiling of their New Space, 2009

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.

Some big things start small... :)

Some things start small… 🙂

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.


City Market Fosters Start-Up Telecom Co-op

Whether engaged in banking, retailing, or generating electricity, all cooperatives are bound together by the fact that they adhere to the “Rochdale Principles.” Descended from the rules that governed the world’s first cooperative store in Rochdale, England, the modern list of seven principles serves define the core of what it means to be a cooperative.

Most of the ideas put forward in the Rochdale Principles tend to apply to the relationship between a co-op and its members. All co-ops, they assert, should be characterized by such things as “voluntary and open membership,” “democratic member control,” and “member economic participation.” The sixth principle, however, deals with the relationship between an individual co-op and the movement as a whole by promoting “cooperation among cooperatives.”

Unfortunately, coops often interpret Principle Six narrowly to mean joining their trade association and, if they are particularly ambitious, putting a little bit of money in a cooperative development fund. On the other hand, some co-ops take that responsibility quite seriously, and go above and beyond in support of other co-ops and the movement.

A fantastic example of such inter-cooperative cooperation is ongoing right now in Burlington, VT. In the face of the possible sale of the local municipal telecom provider by the City to a corporate buyer, residents formed a group to explore the possibility of establishing a co-op which would offer a local and democratic alternative to corporate ownership.

Tabling At City Market

Tabling at City Market

Almost immediately, Burlington’s food co-op, City Market, stepped up to support the campaign. Updates about the telecom co-op project began to appear in its newsletter, and volunteers staffing a table in the first aisle of the co-op on days in which the space is not being used for food demonstrations have become a regular feature. When asked about the food co-op’s decision to take such an active role in promoting the new start-up, City Market General Manager Clem Nilan responded that:

City Market, as an organization, is hard-wired to support new and existing cooperatives. Our Global Ends … reads, “the cooperative model is supported,” [a]nd Cooperative Principle 6, Cooperation among Cooperatives, attests that cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

At Onion River Co-op, we can see and measure the positive impact we have on our community.  We are happy to share our resources to promote the cooperative model. … If Burlington Telecom becomes a customer-owned co-op, the telecom’s revenues and profits would remain in Burlington enriching our community and  supporting good jobs.  Businesses like City Market and households (like my own) depend on fast reliable information transfer which BT provides through world-class fiber-optic capacity.

Because Onion River Co-op has been operating at a high level for many years, we have the resources to implement our goal to support the co-op sector.

As a result of such support (as well as countless volunteer hours), the telecom co-op has raised over $80,000 in pledges and recruited hundreds of members. Though the project has a long way to go yet before the goal of mutualizing Burlington Telecom can be achieved, City Market’s dedication to the principle of “cooperation among cooperatives” has provided a big leg up and suggests the importance of that principle to the ongoing project of building the cooperative economy.