Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles to mark the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Southern Plains Co-op. Some excerpts of this article are from a story on the co-op's 70th anniversary in 2016. Congratulations to the co-op on the milestone, and thanks for what you bring and mean to the community.
The Southern Plains Co-op and other co-ops in Saskatchewan like to say “You’re at home here.”
It’s not just a marketing slogan for Southern Plains; it means something, to the co-op, to its employees, to its members and to the many other people who shop there, not just in Estevan, but in Carlyle, Oxbow, Gainsborough and Alameda.
And while people often think of grocery stores when it comes to the co-op, it has a lot more than just food markets in its fleet of services.
The Southern Plains Co-op is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year; April 10 marks the organization’s 75th anniversary – a milestone certainly worth celebrating for anyone who has turned to the co-op since 1946.
The local co-operative’s beginnings came when a core group of local citizens and area farmers put in a few dollars each. Their efforts were successful when the provincial Federated Co-operative headquarters welcomed them into the fold as the Estevan Co-operative in the spring of 1946.
The annual financial report from Federated Co-operatives, who provided the audited statement, noted that the Estevan Co-op had recorded an operating loss of $486.08, but had managed to post $961.49 in net earnings, thanks to the patronage refund from Federated Co-op
With fixed assets of just over $264, the local co-operative was undeterred. Their business had generated a refund of $1,437 from FCL, based on the previous year’s sales of $24,092.25 and a gross profit of $2,724.08.
Compare that with Southern Plains’ figures from the audited financial statements for 2019-20 that were released at the Co-op’s annual general meeting last July at the Prairie Dog Drive-in north of Carlyle.
Sales for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2020, were at $79.4 million. The co-op had a $67.9 million cost of goods sold, operating and administration expenses of more than $13 million, a patronage dividend of more than $5 million from Federated Co-operatives Ltd., and it paid $1,741,045 back to the members.
The local Co-op made a move in 1946 to secure a few accessory buildings from the now de-commissioned Commonwealth Air Training School and airport south of the city. Especially coveted were the petroleum storage tanks. A few buildings and tanks were eventually bought and transported to Estevan for the fledgling operation.
A permanent site was sought, with the first site of a bulk petroleum service set up on Fifth Street.
By 1949, Estevan Co-op had their first actual building, a 16-foot by 34-foot structure on Fifth Street. That fall, another 20-foot by 20-foot building was constructed onsite to accommodate a growing lumber business. Among the first items the co-op sold back then was coal.
Those modest moves were greeted with growing success which provided enough encouragement for the board of directors to move forward in 1960 with plans for a major food store on Fourth Street. The property was purchased and planning began, followed by an ambitious construction schedule that saw the food store open in May 1962.
Oxbow’s food store dissolved in January 1969 and FCL purchased the building. The Estevan Co-op leased it and opened up another store at that location, giving them a second outlet.
Among other highlights from the co-op’s history:
- By 1999, a major new food store, convenience store and car wash were opened in Estevan, with a flourish, and the demolition of the 1962-era building was completed. That store continues to be a hub for both the co-op and the community, and while it has had a number of renovations and alterations over the years, continues to look impressive, more than 20 years after it opened.
- An amalgamation effort with Carlyle was successful in May of 2003. Estevan Co-op now had three major retail and bulk service centres in southeast Saskatchewan.
- On the advice of the members, the co-operative had a name change that better reflected the growing regional status. Since it was no longer just an Estevan-centric operation, the Southern Plains Co-operative Ltd. name and logo were adopted in July 2006.
- A cardlock and agro-centre on Kensington Avenue took root in 2008.
- A new convenience store was opened along Highways 9 and 13 in Carlyle in the latter part of 2009, followed by a new cardlock system a few months later. That was then followed by a major upgrade to the Carlyle store and services that were completed in 2012.
- A major refurbishment of the Co-op food store on Fourth Street in Estevan was completed in 2014.
- The next year, it was a cardlock system installed in Oxbow followed in rapid succession with a new convenience store opening in that community in January 2016. A completely new food store opened in Oxbow in mid-March of that year.
- Two more community team members were added in 2016. First up was Gainsborough when it was accepted into the Southern Plains family by a decisive vote from members. Before the end of the year, Alameda was added to the family.
- A cardlock location opened on the Estevan truck bypass shortly after the truck bypass opened in the fall of 2015.
- A highlight for the board came in 2019, when long-time board chair Robert Grimsrud was named to the board of FCL as one of the directors for District 3, which encompasses Saskatchewan.
- Southern Plains ventured into the world of liquor in 2019, when it opened new liquor stores in Estevan and Oxbow. Both stores have proven to be popular in the community. They have purchased a retail liquor sales permit for Carlyle, and the new store, which would be located at their convenience store, is expected to be ready in 2021.
- The co-op has also purchased land for a new grocery store in Carlyle.
- Southern Plains co-op has also pivoted and adapted to the changing times. Customers can have their groceries delivered to their home, and they have grocery pickup available at the Estevan store.
It’s hard to say what exactly the future holds for the Southern Plains Co-op. But you can be sure that it will continue to be a big part of the community, it will continue to add to the services it offers to the southeast, and it will keep on top of the changes and innovations in the delivery of food and much more.