It’s 6:30 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in rural South Carolina as I pull into a dirt field across the street from Marlboro Electric Cooperative’s headquarters and warehouse. Eleven months out of the year, this land is home to corn or soybean crops. This morning, however, it is empty.
In about an hour, it will transform into a vast impromptu parking lot, ultimately filling with thousands of vehicles. Today is Marlboro Electric Cooperative’s annual members’ meeting. A crackle of excitement fills the air even before the sun begins to peek over the horizon.
While ads list the official start time as 10 a.m., eager members gather at the entrance hours before, hoping for a good seat for this year’s meeting. As the crowd builds, the day begins to fill with warm hugs and excited squeals of “I haven’t seen you since the last annual meeting!” and “It’s so wonderful to see you again!” It’s moving to see people catching up with old friends and neighbors they would not normally run into in their day-to-day lives, or families from around the county reunited in one place.
With roughly 6,000 members, MEC is by no means the largest electric cooperative in the country, but a newcomer attending one of our annual meetings might not guess that. I never cease to be amazed by the great number of people who decide to spend their Saturday with us at the annual meeting. Although only 5% of our membership is required to make quorum for an official meeting to take place, we consistently have more than 20% of our members present.
Since my department oversees the planning and execution of the annual meeting, we always seem to be talking about how to keep the turnout so strong. There are two prevailing theories.
MEC’s annual meeting always seems to smell more like a county fair than a business event. Held in our truck shed—basically a huge, open warehouse—there’s everything from grilled hot dogs to freshly popped popcorn. Our hot dog chili features a homemade (secret) recipe, and all co-op employees put their baking skills to the test and bring fresh sweets from home. Fair warning: Some of us are better bakers than others! However, members seem to taste the love we put into our food and appreciate the low prices. I have even heard a few say our $1 hot dogs are the main reason they come to the annual meeting year after year.
We generally have an awesome local band that plays all sorts of hit tunes. They even have a saxophonist, which gives their performance a little something extra—a jazzy feeling. Last year, we had a nationally renowned magician. As part of his act, he brought kids on stage and did magic tricks, and pulled a rabbit out of a hat. We also had a balloon artist who was a hit with all ages. Few things bring me more joy than seeing a child’s eyes light up when they witness a regular balloon transform into a giraffe or some other exciting animal.
After our business meeting, we have a raffle for everyone in attendance. I’m not trying to brag too much about the quality of the prizes, but just for context, we raffle things like small kitchen appliances and generally have around 50 prizes.
While all the food, music and fun is understandably compelling, I like to think the underlying reason so many members attend the annual meeting is because your electric co-op is just that: yours. You have a say in how it is run because membership equals ownership. Your annual meeting not only serves as an opportunity to socialize with long-lost friends and far-flung neighbors, it’s your chance to meet face to face with the folks who work for you and discuss ways they might better serve you in the future.
Electric co-ops belong to the members they supply. Every member has an equal voice in how their co-op is run. When members attend the annual meeting, those individual voices can be heard. Sitting in that truck shed with a belly full of popcorn, you can feel confident any decisions being made that day are in your best interest and the best interest of your community.