ST. JOHNSBURY — With a growing local membership and corps of volunteers, a new food cooperative in St. Johnsbury is getting closer to becoming a reality.

The Caledonia Food Co-op effort recently was the recipient of its third grant through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the group announced.

The $70,000 Rural Business Development Grant grant opportunity comes with a matching requirement of $31,450 in Co-op funds along with in-kind contributions, the volunteer board of directors said.

In an interview this week, members of the board, including local farmer Eric Skovsted, who operates Joe’s Brook Farm in Barnet with his wife, Mary, said the most recent grant will be used to assist the nonprofit organization with site development, financing and member recruitment costs.

The Caledonia Food Co-op is received support from the Town of St. Johnsbury, the Northern Community Investment Corporation (NCIC), and the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA) Skovsted said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to do this by ourselves, local development organizations, the Town of St. Johnsbury, the St. Johnsbury Development Fund, NCIC, NVDA, the national partnerships for food co-ops … neighboring food-cops, we have regional partnerships with other co-ops … we’re not doing it alone, that’s for sure.”

To date, the co-op has 618 members. Those founding members have paid membership dues of $100 per family/household, which is a lifetime membership. Founding memberships of $100 also come with one vote at the annual meeting to choose Co-op Board members, the group said.

Growing the membership is critical for the group to get off the ground, the members said this week.

Memberships A Priority

“Every member is an owner, every owner has a voice,” said Margaret Healey, Board Treasurer “That’s 618 voices, which is truly incredible.”

The timeline the group is following is typical for creating a community food co-op, the volunteers said this week. Four to six years is a common period of time said Skovsted, during which time “a lot of heavy lifting by volunteers and community leaders” takes place, as it is with the effort in St. Johnsbury.

“A lot of the goal is really determined by what sort of capital we end up needing to build the store,” Skovsted said. “Different co-ops have set different membership goals based on what they think they need in terms of a membership base to execute a member loan campaign as a leg of the stool of a financing package that will lead to construction. Some co-ops have put that number at 2,000; we’ve always had a goal of getting close to 1,000 members … somewhere about that number feels about right for this community and for this project.”

Skovsted in the first few years of the co-op, it’s expected that number would double, then triple, and quadruple “that would be a pretty common trajectory for a new co-op,” he explained.

Skovsted said this week the Co-op has been the recipient of three grants over its 2 1/2 year history.

Part of the grant dollars invested in recent months to get the message of the soon-to-be-coop heard by a wider audience included Caledonia Food Co-op swag, including T-shirts and even dog bandanas, distributed at a membership drive at one of the summertime concerts at Dog Mountain. Recruiting new member-owners is a major thrust of the group’s focus.

“As the pandemic kind of reached a point where we were able to meet in person and spread the word of the co-op, that was a useful tool to have,” said board member Ceila Jackmauh. “We also used some of the funds available in the last grant to really focus on real estate, which is a critical component of the co-op opening.”

Where?

The real estate firm the group is working with has “helped us to begin to prioritize sites based on the requirements of the market study and also do initial pricing for different types of development on those sites, and really trying to determine what the build-out costs will be and whether the site has, for instance, the right number of parking spaces, square footage for the store … and certainly the location … it needs to be dialed into as close to downtown St. J as we can get,” said Skovsted.

He said, “Through that grant, we were really able to identify two sites that we really wanted to focus on after crossing off a few that were on our list that were favorites, that we weren’t able to access or move forward on.”

Skovsted said the group has been advised to keep information on potential sites a secret for now.

New Construction, Reno, Both Still Possibilities

While the main thing many people ask is where will it be? Skovsted said that even though the group now has narrowed the field to two contenders, that could still change. “It may not be possible for reasons we can’t begin to foresee right now … co-ops often have to change sites throughout their start-up years.”

He said the group is still open to a renovation which would be “a pretty serious renovation to fit in the numerous store departments and create the square footage” the co-op needs, but it’s not out of the question. A new build is also under consideration.

Costly Building Market

Asked when they hope to see a brick-and-mortar Caledonia Food Co-op be a reality, Skovsted was quick to answer, “As soon as possible! Other than that, we really can’t speculate.”

He did reference the spike in construction and real estate costs driven during the pandemic, saying, “Construction prices are through the roof. Everything is so expensive right now and getting more expensive and that certainly is an obstacle that we are facing.”

Equipment prices for the items required to outfit a grocery store, too, are soaring. “The cost of taking a leased space to outfit it to turn it into a grocery store is going up 30 to 40 percent, those are obstacles that interfere with any effort to set a real optimistic timeline.”

He said one thing people get is the benefits of a local food co-op, “We can talk about them in terms of the high-quality jobs that exist at a co-op, the ability of a co-op to be an equitable marketplace where local producers, including agriculture and local artisans, can have a place for market access to sell their products, the ability of the co-op to advocate for various causes through a communication network, for their members to advocate for causes through their election of the board and for the board through the people they hire to manage and staff the store, and then just the ability of all that money to stay right in the community … all of the profits are to be potentially re-invested in the store.”

For more information and to purchase a membership to support the effort, visit: https://www.caledoniafood.coop/

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