By Tim Leeds
The Montana Cooperative Development Center (MCDC) at Montana State University-Northern has been in existence less than a year, but Director Suzanne Tilleman said she has been "super busy."
"It's amazing how many groups in rural Montana are interested in using cooperatives for economic development," she said.
MCDC was started in December 1999, and Tilleman took over as director last February. The stated mission of the statewide center is to be a resource for community based development and assistance in Montana, to study and promote the cooperative action as a means of meeting the economic needs of rural Montana.
"You don't have to have a lot of money to start a business using the cooperative form of business," Tilleman said. "A group of people can make a difference by pooling equity."
The purpose of MCDC, given in the mission statement, is to develop, promote and coordinate educational programs, technical assistance and research on the cooperative form of business. The center focuses on cooperatively organized enterprises that implement value added processing Montana's raw agriculture, forestry, energy and mineral products as a strategy to improve the state's rural economy, although Tilleman said she helps any co-op effort.
"I assist almost any cooperative, but the focus is on value added products," she said.
Tilleman said some of the value added co-ops she has worked with include wool-growers marketing, lamb processing and marketing and beef marketing. She said she has also worked with some artists to market their products cooperatively. Most of the groups have been agriculturally based, though, she said.
Tilleman said she helps groups in a piecemeal fashion as well as throughout the entire cooperative formation process. She said she has been assisting both existing co-ops and groups in the formation stage.
Some of the work she does is in educational outreach, Tilleman said, providing information on the benefits of cooperative action. She also provides technical assistance for development and improvement of co-ops, she said, such as providing information about writing business plans, assistance in pursuing grants and funding, facilitating meetings and conducting membership surveys.
Another of her jobs is to provide networking resources for groups, she said, working as a facilitator. She said she could, for example, help groups find an appropriate consultant to help them actually write a business plan.
MCDC, which is hosted by the College of Business at MSU-Northern with offices in Brockmann Center at the university, covers the entire state with assistance in forming or improving cooperatives. The program was initially funded through a grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but since then has received statutory funding from the state legislature for five years.
Tilleman said Greg Jergeson of the MSU-Northern Foundation was instrumental in the creation of the center.
"He's been the critical motivating factor behind the cooperative development center," she said.
Tilleman said faculty from the university have also been very helpful.
She said part of the reason the center was based in Havre is because of the rural, agricultural emphasis of the program, which fits nicely with the main economy of the area.
"It is one of the most viable options for economic development in rural areas where equity is limited," Tilleman said.