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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Riverwest's First Cooperative Bar Welcomes Members

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The Riverwest Public House Cooperative's business model is unique in more ways than one. The bar, which celebrates its opening with a week of events beginning with a potluck and beer tasting on Sunday, April 3, is one of only two cooperatively owned taverns in the country, and unlike most co-ops, it seeks to use its profits not only to sustain itself, but also to launch other co-ops.

"A number of us had been looking into alternatives to the owner-worker hierarchy of most businesses, but the one thing that stops co-ops from opening is a lack of start-up money," says Public House member Steve Whitlow. "So our idea was to start a business that would begin to generate profit for us as soon as possible, so we could then funnel those profits into other businesses. If there were more cooperatives in the neighborhood, they could come together under the same umbrella to split costs, which would make it easier to pay workers a living wage."

Located in the former Riverwest Commons at 815 E. Locust St., the Public House is open to members and non-members alike. Membership is $40 per year or $200 for a lifetime, and includes daily discounts and voting rights at an annual board meeting, as well as access to occasional members-only events. Already more than 170 members have signed on, including more than 50 lifetime members. The seed money from those early memberships was used to renovate the bar and to bring it up to code.

"There's certainly a leap of faith that's involved whenever you open a co-operative business," says Whitlow. "I think we're lucky in that we've opened it in Riverwest, which is really supportive and which has a history of co-ops, with the cooperative grocery store and café here. I don't know if we could open a co-op like this in Brookfield."

The Public House will host live music—it already has polka, punk and old-time country bands booked for its first week—but "we don't want to limit ourselves by just being a live-music venue," Whitlow says.

"We're trying to make the bar as inviting as we can," he says. "Our hope is that we establish ourselves as a gathering place for neighbors. We want people to know that we're more interested in improving the community than we are in making a profit."

For more information on the Riverwest Public House Cooperative, visit riverwestpublichouse.org
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