Agitate, America!: A new economy: From big-box stores to cooperative ventures

Nancy ChurchillBy Nancy Churchill
A Progressive Visionary

Our cities are hurting, Rockford more than most. So, when a giant retailer like Meijer offers to bring jobs and tax income into the community, it sounds like a lifesaver.

But have decision-makers looked around at development sprawl across the country — big-box stores, strip malls, traffic congestion, environmental destruction — and wondered why those communities remain so depressed? Grand promises can’t always measure up to realities after the fact, as big-box stores often pay sub-standard wages and force local business closure.

In her 2006 book, Big-Box Swindle, the True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, Stacy Mitchell takes into account all those external factors.

In an increasingly sprawl-ridden … landscape,” she writes, “communities that have preserved their unique identity [often] have a rare advantage. Research has found that vibrant and distinctive downtowns, open space, walkable neighborhoods and commercial districts, and natural amenities are important factors in many business location decisions. Conversely, the … traffic congestion, sprawl, and a dead downtown [of big-box development] tend to undermine a city’s appeal and can even drive businesses away.”

Also, developers often flip projects within a few years of construction, having “no stake in the long-term costs or benefits of their projects.” How will the buildings age? Will they convert easily to other uses? Will tenants soon abandon them? Will the project contribute to the long-term health and vitality of the community?

Mitchell cites developers who have successfully revitalized downtown areas with locally-owned businesses. One such developer in Cleveland, Peter Rubin, has greater success with local entrepreneurs than with big-box retailers. “Rather than trying to attract regional shoppers, as the previous developer did, Rubin is aiming to serve the immediate neighborhood.”

Cooperative ventures are creating a new, healthier business model. Search “The Economy Under New Ownership” at for Marjorie Kelly’s portrayal of cooperative economies, which, having “dwelled alongside the corporate economy for close to two centuries,” are economies that aim “to serve customers, rather than extract maximum profits from them.”

She warns that the “corporation-dominated system marked … by vast wealth inequity and bloated carbon emissions … is today proving fundamentally unsustainable.”

Generative designs,” as Kelly calls them, are “profit-making” without being “profit-maximizing.” “More Americans hold membership in a co-op,” she says, “than hold shares in the stock market … [and] total revenues approach $2 trillion. If these enterprises were a single nation, its economy would be the ninth largest on earth.”

The best part? Generative designs are more resilient in a crisis than the typical business model. “The cooperative economy — and the broader family of generative ownership models — is helping to reawaken an ancient wisdom about living together in community, something largely lost in the spread of capitalism,” she says.

Together, these various models might one day form the foundation for a generative economy, where the intent is to meet human needs and create conditions in which life can thrive.”

Far better than just another big box any day!

Nancy Churchill was raised in the D.R.C. (Congo), raced stock cars on short dirt tracks for 25 years, and is a proud, lifelong member of “We, the People.” She lives in Oregon, Ill.

Posted April 2, 2014

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