story and photo by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Last Sunday, September 19, the Buffalo Mountain Co-op sought to inform its members about why the Co-op board felt the purchase of the Village Market was good for the Co-op. Two board members, chair Annie Gaillard and vice chair David Ludt, Co-op General Manager Emily Hershberger, and a representative from the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), Katherine Bessey, spoke. CDI is the firm the co-op hired to conduct a feasibility study and community survey about the viability of buying the Village Market and moving to it.
Gaillard spoke first, greeted with applause. She had a few new details about the project than have so far been released publicly. Among those was that the co-op and Village Market had first spoken about the idea of purchasing the Village Market five years ago, but that had been under a non-disclosure agreement until the Village Market publicized its intent to sell recently. She, and others, said that the board could have made the decision to purchase the Village Market without member involvement under their bylaws, but decided ultimately that the decision needed member approval. That particular statement was repeated several times. Gaillard noted that this would be a big change in the co-op’s direction, and also would mean assuming debt when it had not had debt for “years.” She shared that two board members resigned and several abstained on a vote to “get the process going.”
CDI had conducted a survey and Bessey said that of the 700 people surveyed, 300 were not co-op members. Bessey noted that the survey found that the co-op only captured 4% of the Hardwick grocery market, and over 90% of the survey respondents were supportive of the co-op buying the Village Market. She presented CDI’s estimation of the financial hurdles the co-op would need to clear for the purchase to work, chief among those being nearly doubling its annual revenues to be fiscally secure, or at least increasing them from $2.2 million to over $3 million to be viable. Bessey said it was “ideal and fortunate” that the co-op would be able to find such an opportunity to transform the Village Market. She said the purchase was “doable and reasonable with at least $200,000 in fundraising.”
Ludt said “We have one, two, three food stores in town… everybody that we can think of, and people we can’t even think of, go there and get food for their families and go home and cook it. That food, and that love, powers all of the schools and all of the roads that need to get fixed, and all of the power lines and the trees that’ve got to get cut down during the storms and this building right here [Atkins Field pavilion], and everything that we can possibly imagine. And as I thought about the possibility of doing this move, I kept telling myself, again and again, it’s not just an empty building over there. It’s a store that’s been an independent grocery store for longer than I’ve been born. The relationships that people form going into that store, living in this town, living their lives, building this town where the place we live and where we loved to be, are immeasurable in what makes this place great.”
He continued, describing a “goal” of the co-op becoming a “hub for our entire community.” He said “I want to see the farms and fields and woodlots full of produce and people and wildlife. I want to see the topsoil thick and rich with life. I want Hardwick to be filled with growing healthy families, families who love it here and are invested in this community deeply. I want to see us emphasize local food, soil health, and resilience by serving the entire surrounding community.”
He recognized that for a “huge section of our community” in the village, the Village Market was their store.
Hershberger spoke about “blending” the co-op staff with the Village Market staff. She said that the co-op would “do our best” to keep prices low.
A Q+A session followed with very few questions. Some addressed the technical details of the financial modeling. One was concerned about the inbound traffic on Route 15 from East Hardwick, calling it “so hazardous” and asking how the co-op intended to get the police to address that issue.
Another member asked what kind of food the Village Market sold. One said they shopped there, but only if there was something they wanted on special, and then asked “Does that mean we have to keep that [food] inventory on?” The co-op is purchasing what inventory the Village Market has on hand at the time of sale. Ludt answered the question by saying no contractual obligation to maintain the Village Market’s product inventory exists, “just the social contract you have with your neighbors to feed them.”
Gaillard later elaborated about why the purchase included existing inventory. “[The Village Market owners] would not budge on that at all except for a few things. We told them we did not want to sell cigarettes or lottery tickets. There are a few other things we are planning to ask them to try to sell down and not reorder like super smelly laundry products that affect our chemically sensitive customers. Both sides of this food scene are going to have to compromise some and hopefully we can find that sweet spot and the majority of folks can get their grocery needs met. I think we stand to have a good influence in eating habits of the greater Hardwick community if we play our cards right.”
A second community forum is slated for Monday, September 27, at 6 p.m. at Atkins Field.