In Deer Isle, Maine, more than 60 residents just became business owners, thanks to the formation of the Island Employee Cooperative.

More than a year ago, the employees of Burnt Cove Market, V & S Variety and The Galley learned that the couple who had owned the businesses for 43 years was retiring and selling them. Fearful that the change in ownership would result in loss of jobs and other negative changes, the employees took the only sensible option — they bought the businesses.

This is the largest merger of businesses in the history of cooperatives — collectively, it’s now called the Island Employee Cooperative — and it’s the largest co-op in Maine and the second largest in New England.

The process to establish this groundbreaking co-op wasn’t easy and took more than a year due to all of the legal work and the size of the businesses. Fortunately, the worker/owners had some help from Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative and the Cooperative Development Institute , which assisted with the organization of management, governance, legal and financial systems.

In addition, Coastal Enterprises and the Cooperative Fund of New England pitched in financially to help get the cooperative off the ground.

The Island Employee Cooperative’s feat was not an easy one, but it’s an important one. Not only did it preserve the jobs of its employee and the businesses vital to the residents of the town, it also serves as an example for other workers and cities. That’s because the events leading to its formation and its business model are easily adoptable and adaptable to other businesses across the country.

While the Island Employee Cooperative has shown that it’s possible, the road to the formation of cooperatives would be far easier if cities would invest in their development. Some cities are beginning to do so, such as New York, which just pledged $1 million to facilitate the start of worker cooperatives. Ohio has also been dappling in co-ops by giving small grants for research and technical assistance.

However, until more cities start participating, it’s up to the employees. Clearly, we should never underestimate the little guy.

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