BARRE — Plans to open a cooperatively owned grocery store in downtown Barre got a helping hand from the City Council this week, even as organizers were touting a recent “surge” in member-owners and decorating the window of a vacant storefront.
No, they haven’t chosen a location, and even under the most optimistic scenario they are months away from doing so. However, organizers say they have jump-started a stalled drive for community investors and want to publicly chart their progress on a “food tree” that is itself a work in progress in the window of the vacant building that last housed a Family Dollar.
The sign on the construction paper door at the base of the construction paper “food tree” reads “Granite City Grocery coming soon. But where?” — the question that has dogged the all-volunteer organization since it decided not to pursue its original idea of opening up shop in the first floor of Barre City Place.
Chris Riddell, chairman of the GCG board, said the cooperative is 300 member-owners away from being able to answer the threshold questions of “where?” and “when?” — something it could be in a position to do by the end of the year if it is able to sustain a recent surge in recruitment. In late April the co-op board had just surpassed 400 members, and when July ended the number had swelled to 500, with most of the new members signing on in the last six weeks.
Riddell and others had hoped the member drive would be farther along. Less than four months ago the board was aiming for 600 members by July and 800 by September. However, he said an unanticipated delay in hiring a part-time outreach person to focus on member recruitment was largely to blame.
According to Riddell the cooperative has picked up roughly 70 members since Anne Nadel-Wallbridge came on board in mid-June, and board members are cautiously optimistic that stepped-up outreach will push the number of member-owners to 800 later this fall.
That’s the forecast included in a $15,000 planning grant application city councilors agreed to submit on behalf of the cooperative after a public hearing Thursday. However, Riddell, who was unable to attend the special session, said if it takes until the end of the year, or into early next year, that’s just part of a process with targets that are well-defined but wildly unpredictable in terms of when they will be hit.
According to Riddell, the board is focused on making steady progress — building the base of members it believes it needs to seriously negotiate with property owners and secure financing.
“You get one chance at this in a community,” Riddell said, citing the failed experiment with LACE — a farm-fresh food store that opened in 2008, never quite caught on and closed in 2010.
“We don’t want to be just another chapter in that narrative,” he said.
That same sentiment was expressed by board members Phil Cecchini and Rebecca Pincus, who attended Thursday’s public hearing, and by Nadel-Wallbridge and Sherry Rhynard, who earlier in the afternoon began working on the food tree.
All said the last thing they want is to rush to open a store, only to be forced to close it because they’d skipped one or more of the steps they’ve been told to follow by the consultant they’ve been working with.
Pincus stressed the importance of a grant that would provide professional help with crafting a sound business plan to go along with already complete market and feasibility studies.
From conception to completion, Pincus said, it typically takes three to five years to open a cooperatively owned grocery store.
“We’re right on track,” she said of an effort that was launched in the summer of 2012.
The challenge, all agreed, was managing the expectations of those who have either paid for the one-time $200 share in the cooperative or are taking advantage of a monthly payment plan, while continuing to build both membership and momentum.
“We don’t want to disappoint, and I don’t want people to be under the impression if they sign up today there’s going to be a store tomorrow,” Riddell said.
Or next month, or quite possibly even next year.
Under the very best of circumstances, Riddell said, Granite City Grocery — a 6,000-square-foot store with a projected first-year payroll of roughly $640,000 — could be in business by late next year. That time frame, Riddell said, would require answering key questions like “where” and “when” in the next several months.
According to Rhynard, that means persuading more members to invest in what she believes will be an important community asset and a source of fresh food for many residents whose options and incomes are limited.
A summerlong outreach campaign has included a table at last weekend’s Heritage Festival, a weekly presence at the concerts in the park on Wednesday evenings and the local farmers market on Saturday mornings, and lawn signs that have popped up in Barre and beyond with the co-op’s “We own it” message. A series of fall events is being planned, and Nadel-Wallbridge is getting ready to visit residents of properties owned by the Barre Housing Authority.
Though the co-op will eventually need 1,200 member-owners in order to open a store, 800 is the magic number needed to choose a site and aggressively pursue public and private financing.
“My mantra is: ‘It’s daunting, but it’s doable,” Rhynard said. “That’s pragmatic, and it’s realistic.”
The board is evaluating a short list of downtown locations.
According to the narrative accompanying the grant application approved by the council Thursday night, GCG is prepared to match the $15,000 planning grant with money already collected from its members in order to refine the business plan.
The narrative provides the most optimistic projection in terms of when the store might open. By this time next year, it suggests, the co-op will have 1,000 member-owners, a general manager will be hired, and the process of recruiting and training staff, ordering and installing equipment and negotiating contracts with vendors would be underway.
The important milestones — 800 members to start negotiating with property owners and pursuing financing, 1,000 members to hire a general manager, and 1,200 members to open the doors — are fixed, according to Riddell.
If folks need a visual reminder of the board’s progress, they can check out the food tree in the window of the former Family Dollar building.
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