City leaders have been discussing plans to bring a cooperative business opportunity to the unemployed and underemployed people of Lompoc.

Nearly 20 concerned citizens, business people and experts came together last week for two information sessions that were held at the Valley of the Flowers church in Vandenberg Village.

Advisory group member John McReynolds opened the discussion that centered on how a cooperative business could help redevelop the economic foundation of Lompoc, which has an unemployment rate greater than 16 percent, reportedly the highest in the county.

Speakers E. Kim Coontz, executive director of the California Center for Cooperative Development (CCCD), and Luis Sierra, assistant director, outlined the process of establishing a co-op in Lompoc, and gave updates on the plan created by the Lompoc Cooperative Advisory Group.

The CCCD, which is based in Davis, is a nonprofit association that provides education and training on several types of cooperatives. It defines a cooperative as “an organization that is owned and controlled by the people who use its products, supplies and/or services.” 

The Lompoc Cooperative Advisory Group is headed by former Lompoc City Councilman Bill Mullins. The seven-member group raised money for its membership in the CCCD by doing fundraisers, and has been working with the agency for almost a year.

CCCD membership will include grant-writing services and other guidance.

The most commonly recognized cooperative is a housing co-op, wherein members pool their money to pay the mortgage of an apartment building, and are in exchange entitled to live on the property.

The most common co-ops in the region are food cooperatives such as the ‘Isla Vista Food Co-Op, a type of consumer co-op that bills itself as “community owned and locally grown.”

The Lompoc advisory group is looking at worker cooperatives, which are owned by the employees. The objective, said Coontz, is “creating good, stable jobs for people with non-traditional qualifications.”

Among the noon attendees were former city officials and current Lompoc City Councilman Bob Lingl, as well as representatives from the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce, Santa Barbara Community Development Center and Coast Hills Credit Union.

Coontz and Sierra used Cleveland and the world famous Cleveland Clinic as a backdrop, and provided a video presentation of examples of cooperative businesses that are contracted with the hospital.

According to Coontz, $50 million has been made available by grants and matching contributions from various funding sources for the worker cooperatives that are helping the northeastern Ohio city see economic recovery.

“Different types of people from different types of backgrounds,” said Coontz regarding the cooperative owners and the donors. Adding that for Lompoc the goal is “a living wage and benefits.”

The CCCD maintains that cooperative business ownership not only empowers people, and asserts that growing one business in a city helps to grow other businesses.

In Ohio, “the people were able to look to the future, instead of looking to see if they have enough hours for the week,” Coontz said.

In Lompoc, the objective initially would be geared towards job retention as opposed to job creation, focusing on keeping existing businesses open, and those employed there working.

Regarding the closing of an area restaurant, Sierra said if that business were taken over by a cooperative, “it should look exactly like the restaurant that was there the day before.”

The only difference, Sierra said, is that the “profit is distributed a little differently.”

According to Mullins, “Our vision is to develop small cooperatives, not one with over 200 employees.”

The Lompoc Cooperative Advisory Group also has an advisory board, a team of professionals who lend expert advice in varying situations. The Lompoc project is in the organizing stage, Coontz said.

“There is a lot of commitment in this community,“ she said, noting that what is needed now is that same commitment in the form of “money, letters and action.”

“I think it’s something that could really make this community someplace we want to live,” said Mullins.

For more information, call 733-3333 or contact Mullins at 735-2376.