Steph Hamborsky

I moved to Moab in May 2017 after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in December 2016. I had only lived in large metropolitan areas - Houston and Austin - prior to moving to Moab, a rural town with an increasingly year-round tourist population and plenty of quirks.

For many, if not most, of us who live and work in Moab, we derive much of our financial well-being from Moab’s precarious industrial tourism industry. Within the context of a looming recession and unpredictable changes to our climate in the coming years, I believe Moab needs to invest in a cooperative economy to provide our community with autonomy and just working conditions while meeting our basic needs.

I lived in Austin for five years prior to moving to the high desert. Austin, Texas, boasts a substantial number of cooperatives, and I began to understand this historically important economic model through community organizing and reading books such as Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.”

Co-ops in their numerous forms have supported rural, disenfranchised, dispossessed, and marginalized communities to meet their economic needs and achieve community control. Stereotypes, myths, and assumptions about co-ops have deterred some from viewing them as a legitimate business model. However, co-ops have a history of withstanding inevitable recessions and market fluctuations within our capitalist economic system.

Cooperatives exist in three main forms: producer co-ops (e.g. Organic Valley), consumer co-ops (e.g. Moonflower Community Co-op or REI), and worker-owned co-ops (e.g. New York-based Cooperative Home Care Associates). Consumer-owned co-ops democratize the economy by offering a greater level of transparency and community control over business decisions. Many of us have interacted with or regularly benefit from consumer-owned co-ops in our lives, since they include credit unions and food co-ops. Worker-owned co-ops are both owned and managed by the workers themselves, allowing for more democracy in the workplace by empowering workers to make decisions about the operation of the business.

Unfortunately, few co-ops exist in the state of Utah, and Moab is fortunate to boast Utah’s first food cooperative. With an investment in co-ops at the city, county, and grassroots levels, Moab could evolve into Utah’s cooperative hub, serving as a model for rural cooperative development.

Worker-owned cooperatives build community wealth in rural areas, and Moab could benefit greatly from investing in a program to support fledgling co-ops. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in our community, and we should present the worker-owned model as a viable, stable option for interested business owners. Many young people in Moab, including myself, struggle to find meaningful work in this community.

Furthermore, Moab workers undoubtedly face unjust working conditions due to labor shortages and the intense, seasonal demands of the tourism industry. If current local businesses consider transitioning to a cooperative structure through worker-ownership, our community could create financial stability for a broader segment of our community and promote better workplace conditions. Cooperative structures, including worker ownership, counter the trend of exorbitant wealth concentration and profits lining the pockets of a small number of developers.

Beyond the democratization of the tourism industry, I envision cooperative structures as a way to develop a small-scale manufacturing and food-producing hub in and around Moab to provide our community’s basic needs. This would allow our community to generate its own resources and reduce the need for locals to travel to Grand Junction and beyond or order materials from online monopolies like Amazon. Instead of supporting the establishment of stores like Wal-Mart, which notoriously crush small, locally-owned enterprises, Moab could create meaningful jobs in this community and support a robust, autonomous economy.

I am continuously amazed by the passion, ingenuity, and creativity overflowing from this community. Moab boasts plenty of experienced and eager gardeners, bakers, chefs, carpenters, builders, designers, and a whole host of other folks who generate value in our community. I often wonder how we can weave together all of our skills and passions collectively through cooperative structures to expand our autonomy, produce what we need and generate our own wealth. I invite all of you reading this article to contribute your ideas and work with me toward a cooperative future in Moab.

Please contact me at steph.hamborsky@utexas.edu if you are interested in participating in future meetings and workshops on building local cooperative structures.

Steph Hamborsky, a transplant from Texas, has lived and worked in Moab since 2017. She enjoys growing food, exploring the desert, and community organizing.