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Small Town Says, 'This Is Our Store'




Approximately 500 residents of Powell, Wyoming, invested in Powell Mercantile, a large retailer.

 When the last department store in Powell, Wyoming, closed its doors, townspeople were faced with a couple of choices--drive more than an hour-and-a-half north to Billings for clothes and shoes or go to the nearest Wal-Mart 20 miles away in Cody. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and opened Powell Mercantile in 2002.

  
After Stage Store, a retail chain with more than 7,200 stores closed its Wyoming and Montana branches in 1999, Powell community leaders, including the Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce, tried to bring in another large retailer, such as JC Penny. However, none of the chain stores felt the town of 5,500 was a large enough market. "It became for us a question of need and the survival of the town," says store manager Paul Ramos.
 
For three years, Powell went without a department store. Then the town's retail board heard about Plentywood, Montana, which had faced a similar predicament and opened its own store. Inspired by the Plentywood story, the Powell retail board presented the idea to its citizens. "People were all for the idea and promised to make it work, Ramos says. The board sold shares for $500 a piece and limited shareholders to 10 shares so that everyone would have an equal say.
 
Eight hundred shares were sold to 500 stockholders, raising the $400,000 needed to launch Powell Mercantile, affectionately known as The Merc, in the old Stage Store location. A board of directors made up of local business owners, including a retired pharmacist, an accountant, and the newspaper publisher, was set up to oversee the store, and Ramos was hired to handle the day-to-day operations. The next step was hiring someone to stock the 12,000-square-foot-store with men's, women's, and children's clothes; shoes; and accessories. Mike Reile, a retired retail manager with more than 45 years of experience, was hired. 
 
The Merc has provided the townspeople with more than just a place to buy clothing--it's also helped revitalize Main Street. "It's really a spirit of 'we're all in this together. When you succeed, I succeed,'" says Ramos. In addition, The Merc is drawing customers from other small towns that don't have a retail clothing store. "All told, this store serves close to 20,000 people," according to Ramos. And this year, the investors received their first dividend payments on their investments--$75 per share.
 
Ramos says he knows of at least seven other communities that have opened their own stores. "We get calls from people every day from all over the country. It's a wonderful idea. I wish every community could do it."