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A thriving co-op that hope built

In Winnipeg’s inner city, a flower of an enterprise is blossoming

Neechi Commons Aboriginal co-op

Hope is powerful force. It’s so powerful that in a period of 25 years, it was able to turn a modest and tentative food co-op using borrowed space in a poor neighbourhood into a 30,000-square-foot powerhouse, proudly owned by the community. This is the story of Neechi Commons, where hope prevails.

‘Playing store’

Winnipeg’s inner city is a swath of territory marked by the struggling neighbourhoods of St. John’s on the north, West Broadway on the south, Point Douglas on the east and Daniel McIntyre and St. Matthews on the west. The area has high rates of chronic unemployment and poverty. Decent housing is hard to find and substantial, healthy food can be out of the reach of residents’ budgets.

Back in the 1980s, that prompted some Aboriginal inner-city organizers to act. “We were all focused on surviving and getting stronger and stronger, building a cooperative and getting out of debt,” says Louise Champagne, who spearheaded the small alliance. By mid-decade, after “throwing the idea around and collecting information,” says Champagne, the group was ready to move on a plan. It borrowed $2,000 from a friendly housing co-op and used the money to buy food from a now-defunct co-op in the east-end Winnipeg neighbourhood of St. Boniface.

That’s how Neechi Co-op was born. Every Saturday for a year, with vehicles supplied by family and friends, Champagne and the founders would cart the goods from St. Boniface to the Indian Family Centre, a north-end inner-city facility that was donating space. Workers would spread the inventory on tables and price the merchandise. “Then we played store all day,” says Champagne, who is still president of the co-op all these years later. After closing, they would haul the unsold goods back to St. Boniface for storage.

In the process, workers learned about ordering, pricing, marking up and testing the market. But that was almost secondary, says Champagne. “What was being served was the group coming together. It was really more about building the group than selling food.”

“What was being served was the group coming together. It was really more about building the group than selling food”

—Louise Champagne, president, Neechi Co-op

Next step: Neechi Community Store

Once they had coalesced, organizers decided to expand to a permanent grocery store. They chose a 3,500-square-foot building on Dufferin Avenue right in the heart of the inner city. Then came the task of raising funds to buy the property. “We asked [inner city] people to give us some money – whatever they could come up with,” Champagne recalls.

Contributions in the form of interest-free loans ranged from $100 to $1,000 – and in this manner, $30,000 was collected for a down payment. Eventually, the loans were converted to shares or paid back. That vote of confidence from the people helped the group secure a mortgage from Assiniboine Credit Union (114,000 members, $1.4 billion in assets). Neechi Co-op took ownership of the building in 1989 and Neechi Community Store celebrated its grand opening in 1990.

Business was solid at the new neighbourhood shop, which made a point of selling products sourced from Aboriginal communities. It introduced a small bakery that sold bannock. A little café was added, along with a meat-cutting operation. In keeping with its ethics, it became the first grocery in Winnipeg not to sell cigarettes. And when customers had no cash to pay for goods, the co-op happily accepted moccasins, mittens, beadwork and other homemade crafts in exchange. Soon the store set aside some space to display and sell the works of artists and artisans. “You need to figure out ways to support people because in very lowincome areas, there are always serious cash flow problems and people get desperate from payday to payday,” says Champagne.

A leap of faith

Meanwhile, the little co-op that could was gaining expertise and self-assurance. In 2009, it took another big step – a leap of faith would be more accurate – when again with Assiniboine Credit Union’s help, it bought a 49,400-square-foot property near Point Douglas.

Co-op Art Show at Neechi Commons
Crafts made by local artisans are for sale at Neechi Co-op

Two buildings on Main Street, erected at the turn of the 20th century, had fallen into serious disrepair and the area had deteriorated to “skid-row status,” says Champagne. But that’s not what the co-op saw. It saw a chance to realize a dream. The dream was to build a two-storey, 30,000-square-foot multipurpose business complex – and it began soliciting funds.

The governments of Canada and Manitoba, impressed with the undertaking, each agreed to contribute $1.3 million toward the cost of the project. Then, Manitoba opted in for an additional $1 million and Neechi raised the rest of the estimated $6 million in construction costs from various other sources.

Although anxious to get going, the co-op delayed breaking ground in order to seek public input on the design and to revise plans to ensure that the new building would be environmentally friendly.

If such actions show a particular respect for land and community, that doesn’t come as a surprise to Wanda Wuttunee, a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. She believes that what Neechi Co-op practises comes naturally to members of First Nations. “Aboriginal businesses that focus on people really speak to a mindset that probably predates the label of social economy,” says Wuttunee, who recently co-authored a case study on social enterprise featuring the growth of Neechi.

The doors open

Neechi Commons’ grand opening was in March 2013 and the wait proved to be worth it. It now houses a well-stocked supermarket with many unique goods, a bakery, a butcher shop, a 60-seat restaurant called Come ’n Eat, a catering business and an arts and crafts gallery called Neechi Niche. The building’s huge bank of second-storey windows and elegant brick exterior helped win it a restoration award from Heritage Winnipeg this year and the upgrade is revitalizing the neighbourhood. The second floor also has rental offices, now full of tenants.

“Neechi Commons was a really huge step,” says Wuttunee. “They could have built it anywhere but they decided to build it in the inner city still and maintain [the goal of] improving the situation of people in the surrounding neighbourhoods.”

“Neechi Commons was a really huge step. They could have built it anywhere but they decided to build it in the inner city still and maintain [the goal of] improving the situation of people in the surrounding neighbourhoods”

—Wanda Wuttunee, professor, Dept. of Native Studies, University of Manitoba

The supermarket continues to serve the local low-income community. As part of the cooperative system, it can access reasonably priced foods from other co-ops, supplementing those with inexpensive generic brands. But Neechi Commons has broadened its shopper base. With its visible location on Main Street, it draws on the north end evening commuter traffic. It has started to attract professionals too – teachers and healthcare workers who hold jobs in the inner city.

“There are a lot of people who work in this area but don’t live here,” says Champagne. “They pull their income out of here, so we’re trying to encourage [them] to support the neighbourhood by spending some of their food dollars here. [That] really helps to sustain a healthy marketplace.”

The complex has also become a destination for shoppers citywide who want to purchase speciality items such as wild rice, wild blueberries and fish from Aboriginal fishers. And on summer weekends, the parking lot turns into a farmers market. Produce grown in local community gardens is sold there, providing another avenue for an influx of cash into the neighbourhood. “We really envision supporting a lot of local food producers [as well as those in] Aboriginal communities,” says Champagne.

In Neechi Niche, about 130 local artisans display their wares. Some pieces are sold on consignment, while others have been purchased outright by Neechi Commons. Art covers the walls of the second level mezzanine and artists give talks in the evening while local authors host book readings. Neechi still pays in food for the works of those who can’t afford to buy groceries.

Worker-focused

Neechi Commons is a worker co-op employing 50 people, most of whom are Aboriginal. It’s the largest commercial employer of Aboriginal people in Winnipeg, which in turn is home to the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada. A small portion of each employee’s pay cheque goes into a trust fund to build up their equity. Once equity is accumulated, employees can apply for membership to the co-op. Membership allows them to elect the all-Aboriginal board as well as have a say in operations. (An advisory board, consisting of experts in a variety of fields, works alongside the co-op board.)

“The sense of ownership, I think, takes time to develop and it’s based on people working here and feeling like they’re valued,” says Champagne. But at this moment what attracts workers to Neechi Commons is steady employment. Jobs in the inner city are hard to find. Champagne expects to hire 20 more people in the next year or two.

Students exhibit artwork at Neechi Co-op
A student from Children of the Earth High School displays her artwork at the co-op

A co-op by-law ensures that any profit is reinvested in the business. When surplus is generated beyond the needs of Neechi Commons, the co-op will invest in other community enterprises. “We’re building the business so at some point we can pay equitable and decent wages,” says Champagne. “That’s still our primary goal.” Eventually, she wants Neechi to offer health benefits and provide broad educational training for workers – another dream within reach, she believes. “We’re growing. Our sales are growing. Our capacity to deliver is growing as well. And every step of building [the business] creates employment in the neighbourhood.”

Manitoba takes notice

Neechi Co-op’s success has been noticed. In 2013, the organization won an Aboriginal Business Leadership Award from the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. Wuttunee, who was chair of the selection committee, says “Neechi was a really excellent example of a community-based business that had been around for a long, long time – over 25 years – and had a huge impact on the community itself.”

That impact was also noted by the City of Winnipeg in 2014. “A year later, the Neechi complex continues to thrive. [It] has … made a vital contribution to the community and its residents,” a municipal report stated, adding that the site is a testament to community pride. And last summer city council approved a strategic economic incentive grant for the enterprise. The city will provide up to $15,000 per year for 10 years as long as the co-op maintains a minimum of 40 employees. If the number of employees drops below 40, the grant will be reduced by an equivalent percentage.

From dream to reality

The grant is much needed, because Neechi Commons is still operating close to the bone. The members, who are from low-income households, can’t ante up much more, so it’s looking for outside investors. “We’re targeting social purpose investors,” says treasurer Russ Rothney, who has been with the co-op since the beginning. “We’re fundamentally committed to maximizing social and community benefits and we’re well aware of the growing interest in [socially responsible investing].” To that end, Neechi Co-op is preparing a share offering linked to Manitoba’s Community Enterprise Tax Credit with a view to encouraging individuals and corporations to buy in, he says.

Neechi Co-op plans to keep growing. Expansion will include more online business, hosting more events, offering more opportunities to local producers and increasing its catering arm.

As well, when resources allow, Champagne says Neechi Community Store, which is still open and operating on Dufferin Street, will be renovated into an industrial kitchen to allow for more catering and more food production. That will mean more employment opportunities for local people.

“We’ve got big dreams,” Champagne says, laughing. “We’ve just got to build the business and generate some resources to pursue those dreams. Everybody’s buying food in some form and when they’re buying food here they’re contributing to the development of the area and the development of employment for people in the neighbourhood. Neechi Commons has really become a new type of friendship centre.” ◊