By Konstantine Fekos
As of 2 p.m. today, Cochranton will not only have lost one of its oldest businesses, but to some, a lifetime of work and community service.
Cochranton Co-op is closing its doors for the last time, said Manager Dick Taylor, who finds the very thought surreal after his 30 years of employment, roughly a third of the co-op’s 90-year lifespan.
“There’s no way to describe a business like this going under,” Taylor said, as he watched a customer break into tears upon hearing the news Friday afternoon. “Serving these people for 30 years, you get to know kids and grandparents. It’s not just a business, it’s a big part of the community’s history.”
The co-op, founded in 1922 by a group of local farmers, became the oldest standing business in Cochranton after the closing of W.L. Dunn Construction about six months ago.
Years of corporate competition and a steadily shrinking clientele, however, put the co-op on its last leg in 2012, when the board of directors ended its battle to keep the community business alive.
“We’ve done everything in our power to keep it going, from cutting employees to extending hours,” said John Heltzel of the co-op board of directors. “The traffic just hasn’t been there. It’s a change in the times, the economy.”
Heltzel, whose grandfather Roy was one of the co-op’s original founders, said this loss is his family’s as well as the community’s, having served on the board for about 45 years.
“Dick Taylor and (assistant manager) Carol Freymuth did everything they could and have done a wonderful job keeping it like a personal business,” Heltzel added.
Taylor truly felt as though he was losing a family business, recalling solemnly how his own children practically grew up in the co-op, raising several pets in the building who became an attraction to customers and their children.
Cochranton Co-op came a long way since Roy Heltzel and others took orders and sold barrels of flour and more from a railroad car.
Over the last two to three years, the business shifted from an animal feed mill to a “one-stop shop” hardware store continuing to sell feed as well as farming service and pet health products, according to Taylor.
“The bigger mills had taken us over,” he said. “And when you start trying to compete with Wal-Mart and Dollar General, you just can’t. It was a downward spiral.”
The Cochranton Co-op struggled while year-round customer traffic slowly became seasonal and sales peaks sprouted only in the spring.
“We had a lot of stuff in here,” said Taylor, motioning toward the now barren walls and empty shelves. “There weren’t a lot of things in the community we missed.”
Products like fertilizers and garden seeds helped keep the business alive through the following seasons until slow business days finally impeded the co-op’s ability to keep up with daily expenses.
The board of directors’ original plan to hang on until spring were dashed when the business was simply unable to pay the bills. On Dec. 29, the board voted to shut down operations for good, and the next day, the store began its 50 percent clearance sale.
“Most of this stuff is on clearance,” said Taylor. “We’re trying to sell out as much as we possibly can. After that, the business hits foreclosure and goes to the bank.”
News of foreclosure went around town simply by word of mouth, leading to sudden spikes in sales for the first week of January with more than 150 customers each day. The co-op released no official word of its final hours.
“Small stores are going by the wayside,” Taylor said, mainly blaming the sour economy and gradual downturn in local farming. “The loss of farming has not helped at all. I could tell you 12 farmers around here who went out of business.”
The co-op’s Saturday Farmer’s Market, a regular event for the past three to four years, has also gone the way of the business itself, reportedly to the dismay of its regular attendees.
“It still doesn’t seem real yet,” Taylor said, wondering where to go from here in terms of job opportunities. “Monday’s probably going to be the toughest day. It’ll be real then.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.