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POWELL - The people running the Powell Mercantile didn't expect their downtown clothing store to become a tourist destination, but people come to The Merc by the busload.

Smaller contingents pull up in cars from Torrington, Riverton, Newcastle, Rawlins and Ely, Nev. But these particular tourists come not with cameras, but with questions about community ownership.

"I've had people ask me, 'Does it matter which side of the store holds the women's clothing?'" Mercantile manager Paul Ramos said of the community leaders who frequent his store. Phone calls come in from communities across the country, as The Merc has been featured in The Smithsonian and Women's Day magazines and on National Public Radio. "Everyone wants to know what we're doing and how we're doing it."

The answer to the first part of the question is "pretty good." It has been three years since 800 community investors plunked down one or more $500 shares to put The Merc in business. Last year, the community-owned business cleared $560,000 in gross sales and shareholders should see "sizeable" dividends in the next few years, said Ken Witzeling, a retired pharmacist who sits in the president's chair on The Merc's Board of Directors.

"We've made money since day one," Witzeling said.

The "how to" question is usually not far behind, as a number of towns nationwide are watching Powell's progress with a growing interest. Close to home, several of Wyoming's smaller communities suffer from the same empty-storefront sickness that inspired The Merc's creation. When Stage and other stores pull out of a small town, attracting a replacement is next to impossible, Witzeling said.

"Stage left in 1999 and for over a year, you couldn't buy a white shirt in Powell," Witzeling said. "We tried to get every major department store and had no luck whatsoever. They all wanted 50,000 people in a 25-mile radius and we can't do that."

Powell's leaders rustled up a role model - the community mercantile pioneers of the Little Muddy Dry Goods in Plentywood, Mont. - and now The Merc is a model for others.

Washakie Wear of Worland just finished its first year of business. The Rawlins store is in the stock-selling phase. A group from Torrington has toured The Merc three times. Garnet Mercantile of Ely, Nev., opened its doors last Monday.

"People hadn't heard of this option before," said Leah Bruscino, northwest regional director of the Wyoming Business Council. "I believe that this trend will probably grow - maybe not by leaps and bounds - but as other businesses close, communities now will be looking at different ways to fill that gap."

Beyond sharing expertise, The Merc also shares its buyer - Mike Reile, who buys for all of Wyoming's community ventures.

But some of these new stores aren't exact "Merc-alikes." Garnet Mercantile has added furniture to its selection, and a couple of places are looking at opening community grocery stores, Ramos said.

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The Merc's board of directors is the first to admit that the community approach isn't going to work for everyone. Community ownership can be the greatest idea in the world, but if no one will back it financially, it's a goner.

"It's like motherhood. Everyone is in favor of it, but will you put your money into it?" Witzeling said. "We give all of those who ask the basic facts and we give them the good and the bad news."

Several tentative Wyoming towns have turned to the state's Rural Development Council, which provides community assessments to gauge public interest.

"It has to be something the community wants to do; you can't force it from the top down," said Carol Stearns, Wyoming Business Council manager for business and industry. "It has been successful in Powell because the local people want to do it."

In Powell, The Merc has become a point of pride, and employees are glad to give tours to the people who stop in with questions, Ramos said.

"It makes a town feel good about themselves," Ramos said. "People can say, 'I'm a part of this.'"

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