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Willmar, Minn., community-owned grocery steps up its membership campaign

Tami Bauers, a consultant specializing in food cooperative startups, adresses an audience Tuesday during a forum on Willmar's proposed community-owned grocery. Bauers was hired to help the grocery move forward with financing and membership. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

All the numbers indicate a community-owned grocery store in downtown Willmar has a good cha-nce of being successful -- but more members will be needed, and soon, for the project to continue moving ahead.

Organizers said Tuesday that they're launching an aggressive membership drive this fall.

At least 400 owner-members are needed before the project can secure capital, said Linda Mathiasen, a member of the organizing board of the community-owned grocery.

"We're at the critical stage," she said.

The project was outlined at a public forum Tuesday night that was attended by about a dozen people. A second forum will be held at noon today in the upstairs conference room at the Willmar Public Library.

Organizers of the community-owned grocery store want to tap into growing consumer demand for wholesome, local food that's sustainably produced and sold.

A feasibility study carried out last year concluded a local food cooperative could open with $1 million worth of contracts with local growers and achieve annual sales of $2.7 million during its first few years.

It also would create a viable market for local growers to sell fresh meat and produce and strengthen the local economy, according to studies and projections.

Organizers also envision it as a resource for consumers, with frequent classes and demonstrations on everything from cooking and canning to gardening.

Members will be one of the keys, however, to making it successful, said Tami Bauers.

Bauers is a consultant specializing in food cooperative startups. She was hired this past month to help the Willmar community-owned grocery move forward with financing and membership.

"You need to build this broad community of a lot of shoppers at a lot of different levels," she said. "We know if you build it, they will come -- but you have to get people to believe in it now."

Organizers must raise $1.2 million to $1.5 million in order to open the community-owned grocery, and they'll first need to demonstrate to funders that they have enough members, Bauers said.

About 60 people have already paid a one-time $200 fee to become a founding member-owner in the for-profit cooperative grocery store.

So far, membership marketing has mostly been through word of mouth at venues such as the weekly Becker Market farmer's market, Mathiasen said. "Every week we had two or three people come and become a member-owner."

These efforts will need to be stepped up, she said. "It's basically getting the word out."

The feasibility study indicated the Willmar area has a large enough consumer base to support a community-owned grocery, Mathiasen said. But questions from the audience Tuesday night suggested many people want more information about what the store will be like before committing any money.

Organizers are planning a full-fledged grocery store with fresh meats, cheeses, produce, bulk foods and a frozen food section, all meeting USDA requirements. It'll also have a sit-down delicatessen. Although the emphasis is on the locally grown, it will stock inventory from other suppliers as well.

"This is going to be a one-stop full-service grocery," Mathiasen said. "You could literally buy everything on your shopping list here."

A location hasn't been selected yet, but the board is working with a Realtor to evaluate several sites in downtown Willmar.

Questions at this stage of the project are common, Bauers said. For some food cooperatives, it can take years to get started, she noted.

"Your store will be unique and will serve the community in the way you want it to be served," she told the audience. "This is done all the time all over the country... It's being done and you can do it too."

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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