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November 17, 2011 10:11 am

EDITORIAL: Merc model makes impact miles away

Written by Tessa Schweigert

For a small community venture that began a decade ago, the Powell Mercantile continues to have great impact beyond Wyoming.

On Sunday, the New York Times featured a community-owned store in Saranac Lake, N.Y. that is modeled after The Merc in Powell.

Off to a strong start, the new store opened late last month, filling an economic void created after the town’s only department store folded in 2002.

Just as Powell did with The Merc, Saranac Lake residents pulled together to purchase shares in their community store. And like Powell residents, the New Yorkers take pride in their new investment — a 4,000-square-foot store offering clothing, bedding and other basic goods to the village of about 5,000 residents.

One Saranac Lake resident described the new store as simply, “a small town trying to help itself” in the Times article.

“Think of it as the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers — a department store owned by its customers that will not pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or a corporate parent takes on too much debt,” wrote reporter Amy Cortese in her New York Times article.

This isn’t the first time Powell’s Merc has served as a model for small towns looking to develop community-owned retail stores. Other Wyoming communities, including Rawlins, Torrington and Worland, have used Powell’s model to establish similar stores. Plans for a mercantile are under way in Port Townsend, Wash.

It’s also not the first time The Merc has garnered national media attention. In November 2005, CBS’s The Early Show came to Powell and featured The Merc in its “Tour My Town” series, interviewing local residents and filming Sample the Season in the downtown area.

During that segment, former Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce director Sharon Earhart told The Early Show, “Don’t expect corporate America to take care of you. Don’t expect the government to take care of you … people know that, if they want to get something done, you do it yourself.”

This, of course, was before America’s current economic crisis began. And long before “Occupy” protestors took to the streets.

Over the years, our agricultural community has continued to find ways to take care of itself.

Earhart also said local residents were worried about vacant downtown storefronts after the retail store Stage closed. We’re glad to see so many storefronts occupied along Bent Street.

Though it’s suffered some turnover and dips in revenues in recent years, The Merc has turned a profit during most of its nine years in operation.

On Friday night, merchants will welcome residents during the annual Sample the Season to mark the beginning of the holiday season. This local Christmas tradition reminds us that Powell residents are blessed to have strong local businesses — they’re what make this community vibrant.

Incidentally, Gov. Matt Mead is hosting a business forum this week in Cheyenne. On Tuesday, Mead called on attendees for business ideas to help Wyoming lead. The Merc serves as a great example of Wyoming leading in alternative and innovative methods for rural retail. And as far away as New York, others are following.

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