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Community-owned grocery project moves forward

WILLMAR -- Organizers of a community-owned grocery store in downtown Willmar didn't get a $10,000 grant they sought from the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission to help move the project forward. The group's request was turned down Thursday by the EDC joint operating board after board members ex-pressed reservations about funding a for-profit entity.

But Bev Dougherty, who is on the EDC board and also has been one of the leaders in the effort to launch a community-owned grocery, said the group isn't daunted.

Dougherty abstained from participating in the discussion Thursday by the EDC joint operating board. But she said afterward, "We'll get (the money). We've funded a lot already."

A progress report delivered by Linda Mathiasen and Bob Bonawitz of the organizing board of the community-owned grocery showed just how far the project has come in the past year.

"Last fall it looked like a feasible project," said Bonawitz, co-chairman of the organizing board. "In my mind today it looks like a real project."

The Willmar Design Center, the incubator for the project, has been pursuing it for months.

The grocery store will bring together producers of local foods and their customers. Not only does it expand opportunities for area growers to sell their products year round, but it also capitalizes on a widespread consumer movement toward fresh, locally grown food, Mathiasen said. "It's a national trend."

A feasibility study, carried out last year with the help of $12,000 from the Economic Development Commission, determined that a community-owned grocery in Willmar could be viable.

Organizers have estimated they'll need $1.2 million to $1.5 million to acquire a site, refurbish and equip it, hire staff and open the doors -- a goal they want to meet by 2012. Their plan is to raise at least $400,000 through membership sales.

The group has successfully filed for incorporation, written a draft business plan and begun developing a database of prospective members and vendors.

A potential location for the store also has been identified: the former Mills Auto property, at Litchfield Avenue and Second Street Southwest. Mathiasen said a letter of intent to purchase the property has been written and signed but the transaction has yet to take place.

This step needed to be taken, however, so that the project can keep moving ahead, she said. "We have momentum and we're at that point where we need to start looking at it."

She and Bonawitz said the Mills property has all the ingredients organizers were looking for: adequate space, parking and visibility.

"The building and the site is so critical to this," Bonawitz said.

The $10,000 funding request to the Economic Development Commission would have supplemented a $10,000 matching grant from the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute. The money is needed for the next step, hiring a co-op development expert to complete the business plan and develop the store's design and a capital campaign.

Although the EDC agreed to fund the feasibility study in the project's early stages, the agency does not have a precedent of awarding additional funds to a for-profit enterprise. "That would be quite a change in our direction," said board member Duane Hultgren.

Nevertheless, the board had some probing questions about the project and its likelihood of success. "We know that some of them don't succeed," said Betty Bollig.

Mathiasen and Bonawitz said organizers of the community-owned grocery have looked statewide and even nationally to learn as much as they can about successful models.

The advice from national experts was to aim for at least $2 million in sales the first year, otherwise "it isn't worth it," Dougherty said.

She said the community-owned grocery also will be significantly different from a downtown food cooperative that closed last year. "This will be a full-service grocery," she said. "The difference is like night and day."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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