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Community-owned grocery announces selection of East Highway 12 site

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Russ Bennett addresses the crowd during a meeting Tuesday at Westside Liquor where the Community Owned Grocery will be located, he announced. Tribune photo by Ron Adams2 / 2

WILLMAR — The Willmar Community-Owned Grocery announced its choice Tuesday of 1600 E. Highway 12 as the future home of the locally owned food cooperative.

Close to 50 people were on hand for the official announcement and signing of the lease, which was greeted with a round of applause.

“It’s a really important day,” said COG board member Mary Catherwood. “We know where we’re going to be. We know where our home is.”

The location, at the corner of Highway 12 and Lakeland Drive, is owned by Westside Liquor. The building is shared by the wine and liquor store and Westside’s other tenant, Mr. B Chocolatier.

A committee evaluated at least a dozen sites before recommending the Westside Liquor building, said Russ Bennett, president of the COG board of directors.

“This one rose right to the top,” he said.

The community-owned grocery is leasing just under 4,000 square feet on the south end of the building. Renovation will start this summer. The board hopes to have the doors opened early in 2015.

Recruitment is underway for a general manager, who will likely be named within the next 60 to 75 days. The COG is expected to create nine to 12 new jobs.

In the meantime, member recruitment and a capital campaign will be key priorities, Bennett said.

The cooperative currently has 560 member-owners; the goal is to have 1,000 by the time the store opens, he said. “We’re really, really looking forward to more of our community investing in the co-op.”

Efforts have been underway for more than four years to launch a community-owned full-service grocery store in Willmar with a focus on locally grown food.

Organizers see it as a grassroots way of increasing access to fresh, quality food, promoting new markets and new opportunities for local food producers, and supporting sustainable agriculture.

Products on the shelves will range from fresh and organic to basic staples. “We will have a lot of recognizable products,” Bennett said.

“Local” could mean meat, vegetables, grains and more from South Dakota or elsewhere in Minnesota, but many products will originate close to home, he said. “I’m hoping it’s Kandiyohi County.”

“I do expect we will have consistently high quality,” Catherwood said.

The plan also calls for a grab-and-go delicatessen and a dining area and outdoor patio.

Supporters of the cooperative originally had hoped for a location in downtown Willmar.

“There was one site we worked our tail off for that would have been perfect,” said Bennett. Ultimately, however, the financial numbers for that site didn’t work, he said.

 The East Highway 12 location meets all the major selection criteria and then some, said Bennett. Visibility is one; so is high-volume traffic.

There’s ample parking to meet the cooperative’s requirement of 30 to 40 parking spaces within a short distance of the front door. The building also is large enough to allow up to 3,000 more square feet for future expansion.

“I totally see this as a space where we can grow,” Catherwood said.

Additional amenities include heated sidewalks, landscaping and the synergy of sharing space with a well-known chocolatier and with Westside Liquor, which has $6 million in annual sales at its Willmar location and a growing wine and beer education and tasting program.

Steve Wright, owner of Westside Liquor and of the building, called the addition of the COG “a natural fit for us.”

“I just couldn’t be any more excited,” he said.

One question Bennett said he’s often asked is whether the community-owned grocery will be limited to members only. “Everybody is welcome to shop at the COG,” he said.

But the $200 investment to buy an individual share in the cooperative gives member-owners a say in how the business is run and will qualify them for member discounts when they’re offered, he said.

The lack of a location has at times been a drawback to recruiting member-owners, Catherwood said. With the selection of a site, potential members can now see something tangible she said, noting that the announcement of the pending lease arrangement resulted in a handful of new signups in the last couple of days.

“It’s picked up already,” she said. “We’re well on our way to building a healthy business.”

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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