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The 16 employees of Franklin Rural Electric Cooperative have spent the past year brainstorming ways to bring a bit of joy to their small Iowa community. The results have included serving more than 1,000 free barbecue lunches to farm families during harvest season and creating an electrified Christmas parade that attracted hundreds of people.
The 2,000-member co-op’s growing community spirit was recognized recently when it was named the 2021 Business of the Year by the Greater Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.
Garrett Thompson, the co-op’s general manager and CEO, says Franklin REC’s popular projects are a tribute to the creativity of its staff and their willingness to keep trying, even when things don’t go as planned.
One of the co-op’s biggest events, Thompson says, was “both a disaster and a huge success.
It happened last fall, when Franklin REC staff came up with a way to show their appreciation of the corn and soybean farmers who make up the bulk of the co-op’s membership. They sent out meal vouchers and invited the members to a free drive-thru barbecue lunch to be prepared by a popular food truck vendor at the height of the harvest season. The idea was that farmers could pick up their lunches and take the meals back to their fields to eat.
“Our co-op had never done anything like this before, so we weren’t sure what to expect,” says Thompson, who joined the Hampton-based co-op in late 2020. “We estimated how many people would participate by looking at numbers from past annual meetings and other events that included a free meal. We planned for about 225 meals, but we had roughly 600 people show up to redeem their vouchers.
“Needless to say, we had some upset members, and the whole co-op staff felt terrible sending members away without a free meal. Not to mention our headquarters couldn’t handle all that traffic and had a mess of cars all over the place.”
Eager to make amends, the co-op rented out some space at the county fairgrounds and scheduled a second drive-thru meal event for the very next week.
“The first go-round, the weather was perfect; the second go-round, it was raining cats and dogs all day, and our staff had to stand out in the rain directing traffic and taking orders as members made their way through,” Thompson says. “But every single employee had a smile on their face and was so happy to be able to serve the members again. It was definitely a proud moment for me to see the employees react that way.
“All in all, we ended up serving about 1,100 meals that day and the members were smiling and were appreciative of the immediate turnaround and better planning.”
A few weeks later, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the co-op sponsored a Christmas parade with more than 20 electrified floats. The parade ended at the local park, which Franklin REC had lit up with Christmas decorations. Volunteers handed out free cookies, hot chocolate and cider to a crowd of about 500 people. The co-op also provided horse-drawn-carriage rides and craft-making for kids.
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“It was amazing; I’ve never seen the park that full,” says Newton Grotzinger, executive director of the Greater Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “People were saying that it was like a Hallmark movie.”
The community hadn’t had a holiday parade for years, and the event “brought it all back,” he says.
“The co-op had inverters you could plug into your car to light up your float,” Grotzinger says. “They gave awards for the best floats. The people just loved it. It was very special. It even made the front page of the newspaper.”
Looking ahead, the co-op is planning to use a grant for 10 gallons of free paint from Sherwin-Williams to help spruce up some local businesses. Their first project will be a shooting range. They also plan to partner with the county hospital to hold a step workout challenge for local businesses to compete to win a trophy for the team that gets the most steps.
Thompson says the key to successful community projects is giving ownership to co-op employees.
“Ask them: How do we get more involved in a positive way?” he says. “And make sure to have some fun along the way. Honestly, there were people who participated in our events who just shocked me. I think they saw how much fun it was and got on board. I can’t wait to see what this crew dreams up next.”
Does your small or medium-sized co-op have an innovative program or unique solution to share? Send Thinking Big ideas to Erin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.