JANICE BROWN REFLECTS ON HER TIME AT MCDC
By Guy Gregory
MCDC Communications Specialist
Janice Brown will soon retire as Executive Director of the Montana Cooperative Development Center (MCDC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop and promote cooperatives to meet the economic and community needs of rural Montana. Brown’s enthusiasm for cooperatives led to her becoming MCDC’s executive director in July 2015. “Jan Brown was exactly who MCDC needed when she came on board. Her passion, dedication and tenacity are among the reasons MCDC has continued to expand and better serve communities across the state,” said MCDC Board President Ryan Hall.
During her tenure, MCDC has been at the forefront of developing new types of cooperatives across the state including small grocery cooperatives, worker co-ops, housing co-ops, and rural investment cooperatives. The 20-year old organization, based in Great Falls, has expanded from two to five employees under Jan’s leadership.
Fresh Start is the first cooperative Brown assisted from its initial exploratory stage through start-up operations. “Fresh Start is a signature success story for Geraldine – a town with only 260 people – as their only grocery store had closed and everyone came together to build what looks to be a sustainable enterprise,” Brown explained. She added that MCDC has helped several other small grocery co-ops since Fresh Start’s grand opening in 2017, including the Neihart Store Cooperative and Red Paint Creek Trading Post & Pantry, located in Lodge Pole on the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Jan also led the effort to shape the rural investment cooperative (RIC) model for Montana, which enables those of modest income to collectively invest in “bricks and mortar” projects in local communities. She explained that, “The RIC concept was borrowed from the ‘Opportunity Development Cooperative’ program launched in Alberta, Canada, earlier this decade.” Eventually the idea took hold in the small central Montana community of Roundup, where a group of concerned citizens wanted to save from demolition the town’s historic Central School building. With MCDC’s help, they officially incorporated the Musselshell Rural Investment Cooperative in 2018. The 14 members of the new co-op pooled their investments to purchase one, $25,000 share of the limited partnership that is now repurposing the structure into rental apartments and commercial spaces.
Sensing the need for statewide training opportunities for young co-ops, in 2016 Jan organized “Back to Basics” workshops to build leadership skills in co-op finance, governance and management. Once held yearly, the Montana Cooperative Summit is now a biennial event scheduled in January of non-legislative years. Brown explained that the two-day events are designed for interactive learning as well networking across co-op sectors.
In 2017 Jan succeeded in securing a cooperation education grant from the CHS Foundation to help fund Montana Cooperative Impact Weeks. These regional outreach events have introduced the co-op business model to high school and college youth with an emphasis how co-ops contribute to the economic stability of rural communities. “The events have generated interest among youth in considering careers with cooperatives,” Brown said.
In recent years MCDC also has become more active with national-level co-op organizations. For two years Jan served on the board of CooperationWorks! (CW), a national support organization for co-op developers, and she ensured that MCDC rejoined the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA-CLUSA). Brown expressed, “It is important that Montana be engaged at the national level as we can learn a great deal from cooperative leaders in other states and countries.”
She also has encouraged a closer working relationship between the Center and the Montana Council of Cooperatives, the statewide trade organization that represents more than 80 co-ops across different industry sectors. The two
organizations are now coordinating their marketing and communications efforts under the Montana Cooperative Alliance (MCA) brand, which is designed to promote greater public awareness of the co-op business model.
Brown will officially retire on Friday, September 13. That afternoon, from 1:30-3:30 pm, the MCDC board is hosting a community open house to say farewell to Jan. The event will be held at 12 Third Street NW, Suite 110, which is in the lower level of the west side First Interstate Bank building.
Tracy McIntyre, an economic developer from Eureka, Montana, who has experience in advancing cooperative businesses, will replace Brown as MCDC’s new executive director effective September 16.