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Co-op discussions center on local foods

WILLMAR -- Discussions are continuing on the possibility of establishing a cooperative grocery store with a local foods focus.

The idea for the store grew out of a desire by vendors at the summertime Becker Market to have a year-round outlet for their products.

People interested in establishing a cooperative grocery store met for seven hours this week with a financial consultant with experience in starting and sustaining food co-ops.

The meeting was sponsored by the Willmar Design Center and Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The group of 13 people received information from Bill Gessner with CDS Consulting Co-op of Minneapolis on a planning and implementation model that he said is used by successful food cooperatives.

He and the group also discussed roles and responsibilities for board members, management and members; discussed a process for moving forward; building a membership base; and obtaining loans from members and other sources.

Gessner said hundreds of food co-ops were started 35 to 40 years ago. Kandi Cupboard, a small food co-op started 29 years ago in Willmar, will be closing on July 30.

During the past five to seven years, a new wave of co-ops has started spontaneously because people want to have some control over their food choices, he said.

Gessner said successful cooperatives use a model called the Four Cornerstones in Three Stages to develop a vision, talent, raise capital and memberships, and organize and implement a plan for opening and sustaining their stores.

He estimates the process to open a store could take about 29 months.

"There is a huge amount of work involved, hurdles to jump,'' Gessner said. "If you trip and fall, do you have enough commitment to get back up again? There needs to be a lot of thought and dialogue in the whole process.''

Gessner suggested Willmar's co-op would need 4,000 square feet of retail space and another 2,000 square feet for storage. Three downtown buildings that might work, based on a market study funded by the EDC, are the main level of the former Erickson Furniture store, 313 Litchfield Ave. S.W., the former Northern Grounds coffee shop, 333 Litchfield Ave. S.W., and the former Habicht's Department Store, 328 Fourth St. S.W.

The Erickson building was first choice because it has the right amount of square footage and 35 dedicated parking spaces are available if the condemned portion of the building is removed.

"It's very important that parking be associated with the store,'' said Design Center project coordinator Beverly Dougherty.

Second choice was the Northern Grounds building. It has some parking, but not as much, and the building is in better condition.

Third, although not a strong choice, is the former Habicht's building, which has no dedicated parking.

After more discussion, group members agreed they wanted to open a store downtown and set April 2012 as the target date. The estimated cost is $1.6 million, based on preliminary financial information.

Dougherty said organizers will visit a successful St. Peter food co-op that is expanding from 3,500 square feet to 10,000 square feet. Other tasks will include electing a board of directors and hiring a manager to shepherd the process.

"The entire group believes they can do it,'' said Dougherty. "It's going to be downtown. It's going to be the destination place or the anchor for downtown. That's the goal. It's very exciting.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150