by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – The Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op (BMFC) member board has made an offer to purchase the Village Market “building, its inventory and equipment, and the adjoining green space and parking area,” according to its Fall 2021 informational newsletter.
The estimated budget is $1 million. Village Market owners Guy and Pamela Trag plan to retire, which is their reason for wanting to sell the store. BMFC Board President Annie Gaillard clarified in the newsletter that “this does not mean we are definitely relocating. A crucial step in the purchasing process includes receiving approval from our Member-Owners.”
BMFC is planning a blend of its own products with products from the Village Market should the deal go through. General Manager Emily Hershberger said, “We will sell Village Market products in addition to co-op products. We want to become a one-stop-shop for the whole community. We won’t have infinite space, but we do have more space there [for mixed products].”
She said it was far too early to be specific about what that would end up looking like, but said, for the Village Market products, “our goal is to keep the prices as close to current prices as possible.”
A mixed product line that would include non-organic products is not unusual for co-ops, according to Hershberger, but the newsletter acknowledges that it would be “changing the co-op’s identity.”
Beyond mixing the products, the plan requires the co-op to be a market that serves the whole community, which is a question of culture, as well as product selection and pricing. Hershberger said, “Our goal is to be a community market for the whole community. In order to do that, we need to mix both our staffs, and find a way to blend our cultures right. One way to blend the cultures and get to know folks is [to have] a staff meeting with their staff on Saturday. At that point, they’ll get to know me, some board members, some other staff members. [We want] to get that communication going to their employees and staff because we want to have good relationships with them.”
A question still too soon to answer is what “blending” the staff would look like. The Village Market employs multiple Hazen students and recent graduates. Hershberger said, “we can’t promise anyone a job right now, because we don’t have member approval. I don’t believe we have any Hazen kids right now, but we have had Hazen kids before.”
The co-op sees new opportunities in purchasing the Village Market. Among these are the additional shelf space, allowing for more local products, and that the Village Market is set up for meat processing, which could give local farmers access to a larger market. The newsletter also describes the potential for community gathering spaces, as well as frontage on the Lamoille River which would be “suited for a community marketplace and seating area.” The current location is not ADA-compliant and relocating to the Village Market building would solve that problem.
The co-op had been exploring numerous alternatives after receiving general member support last year. Beyond the constraints of physical space, a problem for the current location is parking. Buying the Village Market would solve that problem, as well.
The limited space in the current co-op space means that truck deliveries are made frequently. In the newsletter, the co-op notes that “our deliveries disrupt downtown traffic” and that the Village Market building is better designed to handle deliveries.
The co-op also believes that a larger store would offer more resilience. The board hired Massachusetts-based Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) for both a market study and a financial feasibility study, which provided projections and modeling. The co-op believes that a larger, mixed product line would provide opportunities for savings that could be passed along to consumers and also “could make us more stable in the event of an economic downturn.” Its current location is impacted by deferred maintenance and “there isn’t currently much room to grow our sales, though expenses continue to rise.”
According to the projections, the co-op will need to “nearly double” its revenue in the next five years if it moves to the Village Market building. With the larger product offering, revenue increases are expected to get the co-op “to return to a healthy level of operation after the major transition.” CDI summarized its financial analysis with, “The Co-op’s move to the HVM location appears financially reasonable and a healthy improvement for the Co-op and the community.”
The co-op will host two informational sessions to get public feedback. The first community meeting is this Sunday, September 19, at 4 p.m. at Atkins Field, and the second is on Monday, September 27, at 6 p.m. The co-op’s annual meeting will be on October 10, with two weeks of members voting by Australian ballot on the proposed purchase. A final announcement is slated for November 1.