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Community corp may form to purchase Stephenson's

Information meeting set for Monday night

May 06, 2009
A group of Leavenworth residents believe they have found a way to keep the old Stephenson & Co. General Store building a part of the community. Now, they're asking for the rest of the town's help.

The group believes the answer is to form a community corporation to purchase the building, and is hosting an information meeting Monday night at 7 at the Leavenworth Senior Citizens Center.

Meredith Sarles — who has been working with Tim and Cindy Haines and Chuck and Carole Carpenter to give new life to the building since Stephenson's, which connected the town to its rich history, closed last September — said more than 300 community-owned stores have been opened since the 1960s and have created $33 billion in sales.

However, said Sarles, who has talked with people in several of those communities across the country, the key to success is making sure the community is supportive of the effort.

"So, it's important that the people who are really interested in doing this, the people who have questions, show up to the meeting," she said.

The idea, Sarles said, is simple: Sell shares to the public to raise capital to be able to purchase the building and operate some type of community-oriented business.

Owner Elaine Stephenson, who, Sarles said, is supportive of the plan, is asking $85,000 for the building, but the group believes $200,000 will be needed to ensure there is enough capital for additional start-up expenses.

Sarles said the group hopes to raise the money by selling 500 shares at $400 apiece. Each share would be equal to a vote, with a board to be elected, and maximum shares would be limited to 20 to prevent any one person from gaining control of the corporation.

Shares would be available to Leavenworth residents only at first and, if need be, to all of Crawford County and eventually possibly to all of Indiana, Sarles said.

"I don't think it should go beyond the state," she said, adding the group hopes to have enough local buyers.

Any profits from the business could be split into dividends or invested into other historic buildings in the town, Sarles said, explaining the decision would be made by a vote of the shareholders.

The purpose of Monday's meeting is to gauge the community's interest in buying shares and to discuss possibilities for the building. A sampling of the ideas proposed so far include reopening the deli, bringing back ice cream, selling coffee with pie or pastries, displaying artifacts reflecting the town's and county's history, and setting up a stage for performers.

Sarles hopes local residents who possess experience as business owners and who have financial, legal, sales or marketing skills will be interested in joining a steering committee. Before shares can be sold, she explained, a business plan must be created and the necessary paperwork must be filed.

"We need an adequate foundation of Leavenworth advocates in order to move forward," she said.

"This meeting will be a defining moment. Attend-ance will show we are either ready to take the next step or to stop here. The plan is completely community-based; therefore, it cannot be done without community support."

The group considered options other than forming a community corporation, including establishing a consumer cooperative, where members provide the operating capital, and seeking investors. The problem with the former, Sarles said, is no guarantee of long-term viability, since funding is dependent on members of the co-op, while the latter limits the decision making to just a few.

"The problem with that is that's not community, that's one person, and if that one person leaves, you're back in the same boat," she said.

Another benefit of a community corporation, Sarles said, is shares can be passed down from generation to generation, ensuring community control.

Stephenson's was a part of Leavenworth's foundation for 91 years. Originally located in the "old" town, by the Ohio River, it moved "on top of the hill" with much of the rest of town after the great flood of 1937. The new building was constructed using many materials from the original store.

Through the years, it was home to not only a general store, but a post office and funeral parlor. It also housed several historical pieces honoring the town's heritage.

Sarles said the building still could be sold to someone other than the group, as she helped Stephenson list it on a Web site. If it is sold before a community corporation can be formed, that is OK, she said.

"The point is to get the doors back open," she said.


Sarles said residents aren't wasting any time in their efforts to create more community in Leavenworth. A farmers' market for local producers of fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants, eggs, syrups, baked goods, wools and fleeces, jams and preserves and homemade soaps will open May 30.

The market will be open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays through Oct. 31 on the grassy knoll in front of Stephenson & Co. General Store, just off of S.R. 62.

Vendors located within 50 miles are invited.

For more information or an application, e-mail Sarles at msarles1140@aol.com.

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