BARRE — A growing network of people pushing plans to create a cooperatively owned grocery store in downtown Barre says it has all but answered one key question about the project and will soon be bringing in an expert to help answer another.
With the first phase of a membership drive in its final weeks, organizers say they are increasingly confident their concept for Granite City Grocery is desirable. Now they need to determine whether it is actually doable.
For that they will need professional assistance — something they can pay for thanks to grants secured last year even as they launched a membership drive that is well on its way to hitting its first target.
To gauge support for the concept of a grocery co-op in Barre, organizers wanted to secure pledges from 600 prospective members by the end of April. That’s still the target, though with 535 pledges in hand and a growing number of people getting involved in the initiative, a strong signal has already been sent.
Still, Emily Kaminsky, chairwoman of the board for the proposed cooperative, said this week that organizers aren’t easing up.
“We’re in anxious anticipation of reaching that 600 goal by the end of the month,” she said. “It’s an incredible milestone for us to have achieved in the six months since we first started taking pledges.”
If you ask Kaminsky to describe the effort to date in a couple of words, she’ll say: “steady progress.”
“We’re right on track, and we’re poised to take the next step,” she said, stressing that cutting corners isn’t an option when you’re talking about spending other people’s money, not to mention some of your own.
“No co-op was built overnight,” she said.
Kaminsky credited organizers for methodically building momentum for an idea that has taken on a life and a schedule of its own. Initially tethered to the City Place redevelopment project, it isn’t anymore. Though City Place remains an option for the co-op, it is one of several potential homes that a consultant will analyze.
According to Kaminsky, several potential locations — some in the core downtown and some on the fringes — were identified with the help of a representative of the Food Co-op Initiative, a national organization that has offered both financial and technical assistance.
All of the sites are intriguing, but none is perfect, and the next step will be to enlist a professional to help the board and its steering committee evaluate the options.
“We need to rely on the expertise of grocery market experts who will assess each potential site and see which one comes out ahead as the best place to start and sustain a successful grocery store for the community,” Kaminsky said. “We can’t take site selection lightly.”
According to her, that evaluation will occur over the summer as the organizers pivot from one phase of a membership drive to another while ramping up their outreach.
One of the first “next steps” will be to create a mechanism for the hundreds of people who have expressed interest in becoming member-owners to make a good-faith payment toward their $200 equity share.
“Our next task is to turn those pledges into paying members,” Kaminsky said, explaining the $200 can be paid all at once or in monthly installments ranging from $10 to $50.
The money won’t be needed right away and is still at least one important vote away from being at risk, Kaminsky said. But the idea is to make sure those first 600 members are committed, while working to double that number to 1,200 by the end of the year. Billing could start as early as June, and a membership meeting is being planned for this fall.
Hollie Friot, a board member who was part of the original nucleus of supporters, said she is optimistic about the second phase of the membership drive based on the way the idea has been embraced by residents from Barre and beyond.
“As the steering committee and subcommittees have evolved and taken shape, it has been inspiring to see members of the community step forward and make this endeavor their own,” Friot said. “It’s really no longer an effort led by a small group of people, but something the community is committed to.”
A membership of 1,200 is viewed as the bare minimum for launching a successful store, based on conversations with representatives of City Market in Burlington and the co-ops in White River Junction and Littleton, N.H.
Pledge forms are available at several downtown retailers, including Next Chapter Bookstore, Exile on Main Street and Copy World, or can be completed online at www.granitecitygrocery.coop/membership.html.
In the coming months, Friot said, the group will continue to build its membership using regular events, like the weekly farmers markets held Wednesdays in City Hall Park, and one-time celebrations, like the Heritage Festival, as well as social media.
What has been a largely passive effort will become increasingly active this summer. The group is planning a door-to-door campaign and public service announcements, and will be holding small informational gatherings at churches, workplaces and homes. Residents interested in hosting a gathering can call 279-7518.
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