Every town needs to stand out – to find something that helps cut through the clutter. For some, a gimmick works, like a statue of the world’s largest oil lamp or softball. For others, representing an industry or being known for a quirky culture is how they make a name for themselves.

Join us below for a tour across the prairies to explore how five prairie communities have used the co-op model to help find and capture their Hometown Advantage.

From live theatre and a classic rock festival to high-speed internet, a grain terminal, and short-line rail, entrepreneurs throughout western Canada have adapted the model to capture and share their communities’ unique attributes.

Park West Fibre Optic Co-op

Our first stop is Hamiota, Manitoba.

Hamiota looks like many other small, southern towns in Canada’s friendliest province. Under an hour’s drive away from Brandon, this seemingly typical prairie town is a bustling, agricultural borough. But there’s a lot more to this thriving farming community.

To see the Hamiota difference requires that you dig a little deeper. Part of this town’s success story is underground. Beneath the town runs fibre optic cable that’s bringing some of the best internet available in Canada.

In today’s increasingly connected world, fast internet is critical to economic well-being. Having slow or no internet means being left behind, and community leaders in Hamiota don’t intend to come up short. With the independence typical of prairie people, they figured out a way to bring fast internet to their region and formed Park West Fibre Optic Co-op.

And the internet is excellent. With the fibre optic connection, residents can achieve 1 gbps (1000 mbps) download speeds.

That kind of advantage is significant.

Rockin’ The Fields

The next stop is Minnedosa, Manitoba.

For many, music festivals are the crowning jewel of summer. What’s better than getting a group of friends together to go camping and listen to your favourite music?

For the last couple of decades, the festival in Minnedosa resulted from the hard work of a few local music lovers with a dream to bring a festival to their area. Run as a co-op, Rockin’ the Fields of Minnedosa (RFM) music festival lights up this town for one weekend each year. This festival pulls names like April Wine, Collective Soul, Tom Cochrane, and others these days.

Of course, besides the good times, the economic benefits a small town reaps from an influx of 10000 visitors over a weekend is significant. Beyond the immediate financial benefits for local businesses are the town’s brand exposure and reputation. This festival puts Minnedosa on the road to recognition.

Station Arts Centre

Our third stop is Rosthern, Saskatchewan.

When people look for ‘culture,’ they often look to cities — but one small town in Saskatchewan challenges that norm. Rosthern, Saskatchewan, is a short drive from Saskatoon and Prince Albert but draws people in with its arts scene rather than the other way around.

The Station Arts Centre, a beautifully renovated old train station, has become a home for the arts. From sold-out theatre productions to youth programs, workshops, and local artist exhibits, this station is a great stop to get a look at rural Saskatchewan’s artistic side. It’s also (surprise!) a co-operative.

The centre got its start in the 80’s when a group of artsy locals bought the building from CN Rail and renovated it. They raised funds through memberships and preserved this historic building to have an ongoing cultural impact on the town. Today it remains a co-op, which allows community members to get involved. The combination of attracting visitors and engaging residents have made the town a destination and a fantastic place to raise a family.

Battle River Rail

Fourth on the list is Battle River, Alberta.

When CN threatened to close the short line railway between Camrose and Alliance Alberta, farmers in the region worried. They didn’t want to drive their grain further to get it to a rail car.

Luckily, CN had to put the line up for sale before closing it — and locals saw an opportunity. Ken Eshpeter, a local farmer, gathered producers together to discuss options. They decided to raise money by selling shares in an attempt to save the railroad. Thanks to 180 shareholders’ support, the group raised almost $5 million, purchased the rail line, and created a New Generation co-op called The Battle River Railway.

With a locomotive, 50 rail cars, and permanent operating approval from Alberta transport, the BRR runs cars of locally produced crops to market using the rail line. But locals also created a spin-off organization that promotes tourism. Friends of the Battle River Railway takes people on train excursions up and down the line to see the local sights and learn a bit of history.

The mix of retained infrastructure and tourism is a powerful combination for the local economy.

Westlock Terminals

Last but certainly not least, we stop in at Westlock, Alberta.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of quality infrastructure for robust economic activity. It can be challenging for rural communities to keep and maintain the things needed to attract large businesses. Westlock Terminals is an inspiring story of how this community rose to the occasion.

Like the Alliance-Kelsey region, which formed Battle River Rail co-op, farmers in the Westlock region were affected when a large company decided to wind down a local grain terminal. Canadian grain company Agricore intended to close the terminal and centralize operations in Edmonton.

While it may have been nice not to wait for trains in Westlock anymore, the loss of infrastructure would have hurt the agriculture-based economy. So, people in the area decided to “get up off their backsides” and do something.

Farmers in Westlock formed a steering committee to find a private investor that could purchase the terminal, but the upgrades required deterred potential buyers. In the end, local ownership — through the co-operative model — allowed farmers and business people to invest in and form Westlock Terminals in 2002. By 2012, the co-op raised additional capital through a second share issuance and upgraded the terminals.

As Westlock’s mayor said to us, sometimes you have to “get up off your backside and you make it happen, and really isn’t that the essence of a co-operative.”

For more ideas on how to harness your Hometown Advantage, visit HomeTownAdvantage.ca