By Tim Leeds
The Montana Cooperative Development Center is celebrating National Cooperative Month in a new office with a new center director, and is planning to continue helping the people of Montana.
"We're basically looking at rural Montana and want to stimulate the economy," center director Jim Hanson said. "People like living in this country and we'll try to find ways to help them stay here."
Brenda Skornogoski, program director for the center, said finding economic solutions for Montana is the purpose of the center, including the hard-hit agricultural sector.
"That's pretty much our goal right now, to help people find economic solutions to horrible problems," she said.
Hanson started as center director last month, with new offices in the Brockmann Center. He has a long history with cooperatives, starting with managing a cooperative in Poplar in the mid-1970s. He has a degree from Montana State University-Northern and a master's degree in business administration from Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minn. He has been working as a co-op manager and a consultant in eastern Washington for the last seven years.
Hanson took the place of Suzanne Tilleman, who became an assistant professor of business at MSU-Northern in August. She and Skornogoski, a business professor at MSU-Northern, are program directors for the center.
Tilleman said that in her year as center director she spoke to about 100 people and groups, helping them develop strategies for forming cooperatives or improving existing ones. The director's responsibilities are many: developing strategies for the center, developing funding streams, providing technical assistance to people wanting to form co-ops, managing the resources of the center, "and raising the awareness in the state of cooperatives as an economic tool," Tilleman said.
Greg Jergeson of the MSU-Northern Foundation, who wrote the grant that funded the director's position, said cooperatives can help people in rural Montana pool their money and resources and magnify their strengths to succeed in business. There may be other ways for people to find success, he added, but people are learning that cooperatives are one way to do it.
Tilleman said Skornogoski will advise the center on operational issues, while she will write and monitor grants for the center. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in August awarded the center $299,400 in a joint grant with the Mission Mountain Market Cooperative Development Center.
Tilleman said that since she started as the center director last fall, the center has received eight grants for a total of about $460,000. The center has expanded from one worker the director to include a second full-time employee and two student workers, with plans to hire another student worker.
Jergeson, a state senator from Chinook who retired from the Legislature this year because of term limits, worked in the Legislature to appropriate $65,000 a year over five years to the center. Jergeson said the state appropriation is not part of MSU-Northern's budget, although the university administers the money. The center is a state agency hosted by MSU-Northern.
Jergeson said he thinks the center is proving itself, and renewing the appropriation in the 2003 Legislature should not be difficult. The center's success in leveraging that funding to get large federal grants and smaller grants should prove it is a good investment for the Legislature, he said.
"The commitments we made to the Legislature have been met," he said. "I think there's a positive track record now."
Tilleman has established a network for the center, Jergeson said, creating contacts with other cooperative development centers such as the Mission Mountain center. That success in networking was part of the reason the center has successfully applied for some of the grants it received.
"The developing reputation of the center caught the attention of people in Washington, D.C.," he said.