A creative co-op in the Exchange District

Businesses at 91 Albert work toward buying the building

  • Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse is one of the businesses currently occupying 91 Albert St. – Cindy Titus

The Old Market Autonomous Zone (A-Zone) is taking activism to a new level by establishing the framework for the first co-operative building ownership model in Winnipeg.

“In some ways we’re creating something new,” 12-year Mondragon collective member Eton Harris said. “We might be taking some things from a housing co-op here and some from a workers co-op there.”

The A-Zone, founded in 1995 to represent the tenant businesses of 91 Albert St., has been working toward buying the building from the current owner and founder of Mondragon Restaurant since Paul Burrows officially decided to sell earlier this year.

With the historic Exchange District building and its businesses deeply rooted in anti-fascist organizing and class struggle fights, Harris explained the goal was always to run the structure as a collective entity, but the legal structure needed to be created.

With a “one vote, one voice at the table” per tenant group, the A-Zone began meeting monthly in November to hammer out the financial and theoretical goals of the purchase.

Specific financial implications have yet to be decided, though Harris estimates the A-Zone would require approximately $500,000 to $600,000 to purchase the building. Money for the down payment would hypothetically come from an investment of around $1,000 from each of the 12 tenants. Harris and the other members of the collective are looking to the community through a fundraising campaign that kicked off March 20 to come up with the remainder.

Working with the City of Winnipeg to create the legal agreement and register as a tenant co-operative within the next 30 days, Harris acknowledges that the work isn’t over.

“It is more work for everyone, but we’re trying to run it in a directly democratic way,” Harris said. “If we couldn’t purchase the building, it would go on the open market, and then it’s just another adversarial struggle with the landlord. It’s nickel-and-diming and general landlording.”

That sense of security and the ability to voice opinions are just a few reasons the Junto Local 91 anarchist lending library is on board with the purchase, according to longtime volunteer Brock Gatien.

“There’s no fear of having to shut down or have a landlord kick us out if we can’t pay our rent. There’s a dialogue that can be built on,” Gatien said.

Focusing on rare, radical and relevant publications and media, the volunteer-run Junto inhabits the second floor of 91 Albert St. along with organizations like Canadian Dimension magazine and the Canada-Palestine Support Network.

In the eyes of the Exchange Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), the building has always seemingly been run as a collective, but the legality is a positive step.

“I expect the group is really thinking it out, and that’s great,” Exchange BIZ executive director Mal Anderson said.

He notes that many groups with common goals and visions congregate together in the Exchange District, such as in the Artspace building. Anderson has seen the potential of a co-op structure in his past involvement with the Canadian Co-operative Association and would encourage the development of well-run co-ops that are focused on the needs of their individual groups.

“What happens with the co-op philosophy is that it’s not that you aren’t there for profit but it’s that you’re there to operate in a way that benefits its members. But you still have to make a profit,” Anderson said.

Published in Volume 64, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 25, 2010)

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