After living without a grocery store for nearly six months, residents of Haines Junction are pulling together to start one for themselves.
Residents intend to create a co-operative. An interim board of directors is already lined up and the co-operative was slated to be registered earlier this week.
The goal is to have a grocery store open by July.
“I’d hope to be ahead of that timeline,” said chair Michael Riseborough. “Having said that, I recognize there’s a lot to be done – not the least is acquiring a place to operate from. And to say we’re undercapitalized is an understatement. We have no money at all.”
That may sound daunting. But the community is receiving guidance from Arctic Co-operatives Ltd., which operates 31 stores across Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
ACL officials attended a meeting in Haines Junction, which was held last week to discuss the possibility of starting a co-operative. They also provided paperwork to help the Junction’s co-op establish itself.
If the Junction’s co-op joined its alliance, it would also receive help training managers, ordering inventory and doing payroll.
There’s also a building waiting to be occupied – Madley’s General Store, which was closed last fall.
Owner Terry Madley defaulted on the store’s mortgage payments and the building is now in the possession of its creditors, Dana Naye Ventures. It’s looking for a buyer.
Both the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and the Kluane First Nation have expressed interest in buying the building. If that happens, the building could then be leased back to the co-operative.
The co-operative aims to get off the ground by tapping the Enterprise Trade Fund, offered by Yukon’s Department of Economic Development.
The community’s desire for a store was evident by the healthy attendance at last week’s meeting, said Shannon Albisser. She works with the federal government’s rural and co-operative secretariat, and helped set up the meeting.
“Usually five people show up,” she said. “We had 80 people there. It blew me away.”
The closure of Madley’s meant that residents of the Junction, which has a population of about 800, and the nearby communities of Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay have to go all the way to Whitehorse to buy groceries.
Elderly people who are unable to drive have been hit the hardest, said Riseborough.
For them “to come in to Whitehorse is either very difficult or impossible,” he said.
Friends and family have pitched in to help the less mobile. And the local gas station has begun to carry more milk, eggs and bread.
But the grocery store’s closure remains a “major inconvenience” for residents accustomed to buying fresh produce and other offerings, said Riseborough.
Co-ops have had a checkered history in the Yukon. Proper support for managers is essential to success, said Albisser.
In the case of Old Crow’s shuttered grocery co-op, “you can track the competency of the manager with the success of the store,” she said. “In years when they had a really high-functioning manager, they did really well. And in years when they didn’t, they went bankrupt.”
The Yukon’s failed credit union stands as another example of a co-op gone wrong. “It did fail horribly,” said Albisser. “No doubt, we’re a little gun shy.”
But ACL’s presentation suggested that a co-op in Haines Junction is not only doable – it could also offer lower prices than Madley’s.
“They’re looking forward to having some competitive pricing with Whitehorse,” said Albisser. “Milk and bread and everything will be comparable to Whitehorse – they’re just an hour and a half away. Other items might be more expensive, but that’s with every business. And that will be up to the co-operative to decide on that.”
Madley’s closure suggests that running a grocery store in the Junction may be a tough go. But, given the show of support at last week’s meeting, many Junction residents appear prepared to support a co-op, said Rod Wilson, ACL’s vice-president of member management services.
“You’re not promoting and supporting someone else’s business. You’re promoting and supporting your own business.”
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