March 10, 2015 — In recognition of its tremendous accomplishments in fostering a sustainable society, the Island Employee Cooperative was presented CEI’s Sustaining Community Award at the organization’s annual meeting on March 10.
The for-profit cooperative is now Maine’s largest worker co-op and the second largest in New England, employing 60 island residents, 45 of whom are member/ owners. A CEI loan and business development services client, the cooperative was singled out for the award for its triple bottom line approach to business, nurturing economy, equity and ecology.
The cooperative is still a new business model for Deer Isle. Just over a year ago, Vernon Seile, owner of three stores—two grocery stores and a variety store—that are vitally important to the Deer Isle and Stonington communities, decided to sell. When a viable buyer failed to materialize, the store employees organized to form a co-op to purchase and manage the stores.
A team of financial institutions, service providers, and technical assistance providers worked over 2,800 hours to complete the conversion and purchase in 12 months, a short timeline given the complexity of the $5.6 million project. It is now a national model for worker co-op conversions, grocery store succession planning, and creative financing.
“Many of us have worked in these stores for decades and never imagined we could own them,” said Island Employee Cooperative board chair Alan White. “It’s no small matter to keep local ownership of the stores and the benefit of creating the cooperative continues to ripple through our community. We are still learning about leadership and management, co-op governance, and financing, and when it feels tough, I think about the single mothers who work in the stores and now have a stake in the ownership, and how much they are depending on me and my fellow board members to make this work.”
“This financial transaction represents the best kind of collaboration to build wealth and opportunities in Maine’s rural communities,” said CEI Loan and Investment Officer Cole Palmer. “There is no better example of what defines sustaining community.”
At the annual meeting, CEI also recognized key partners in the project: Mark Sprackland of the Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative, Rob Brown of the Cooperative Development Institute, and Gloria LaBreque of the Cooperative Fund of New England.
CEI, one of the nation’s premier Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), specializes in rural business development and financing. Founded in 1977 in Wiscasset, Maine, we create economically and environmentally healthy communities in which all people, especially those with low incomes, can reach their full potential. CEI provides financing and technical assistance to small and medium-sized businesses, natural resource-based industries including the farm, fish and forest sectors, community facilities, renewable energy, commercial real estate and affordable housing. CEI serves communities in Maine, New England, and rural regions throughout the U.S. Find out more at www.ceimaine.org.