If there is an unlikely place for a cooperative market to spring up, Gloversville, NY is that place. Its 19th/early 20th Century downtown, though beautiful, has suffered the abandonment brought on by the ex-urban strip mall craze. Incomes are low, unemployment is high and the jobs that are available are often low-end service and unskilled industrial positions. Nevertheless, on July 2, 2008, when most people in Fulton County were busy making potato salad, shining their barbecues, or calculating the carrying capacity of their coolers in preparation for the upcoming holiday, a group of people met in Gloversville to discuss the possibility of a food co-op for the area. The meeting was the culmination of a series of happy coincidences and remarkable synergies connected with the dedication a few weeks previous of the new Farmers’ Market Pavilion in Gloversville and the efforts of another group, Gloversville 2020, dedicated to revitalizing the city.
I was skeptical going into the meeting. About three years earlier Laurie and I had participated in another attempt to organize a food co-op in Gloversville. That attempt had foundered on the group’s inability to come to terms with a common purpose. Some thought the market should be vegetarian, some that it should be strictly vegan. Others argued that in our sparsely populated area it would be business suicide to exclude the preferences of the majority of people. Each faction dug in its heels refusing to compromise until the project evaporated. When I walked into the meeting on July 2, I immediately sensed that something was different.
First I was surprised at how many people I didn’t know. I was used to going to meetings populated by “the usual suspects,” the small group of community activists that one can find in every community. Certainly they were there, but they were outnumbered by people I had not seen before, at least not in such a context. As we organized and began to introduce ourselves I was amazed at the diversity of the group: an accountant, two health workers, a nutritionist, a lawyer, a farmer, two representatives from Cornell Cooperative Extension, an educator, a minister, a musician and a couple of web-savvy computer programmers all were among the crowd that filled the room that evening.
In spite of the diversity, in spite of the lack of familiarity, we quickly discovered that we shared a common interest, and that was our concern about where our food came from, its safety, and the economic impact of our food choices. We discussed the negative effects on the community of big-box stores and chain supermarkets, and we discussed the rich and valuable agricultural heritage that was ours in the Mohawk Valley. Through these discussions we soon articulated the core goals of our cooperative enterprise: to support local farmers and value-added producers, to provide healthy wholesome food for our members and shoppers at the market, to be a source of information and education about why our food choices matter, and to promote in whatever way we could an economy that values localism and self-reliance.
Within a few weeks we had chosen a name (Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market), we had a website (mohawkharvest.org) and committees working on a business plan and bylaws as well as a committee searching for a building to house the venture. One of our group wrote a Farm Viability grant through Ag & Markets requesting $80,000 in start-up funds, which we hoped to match with an additional $80,000 in membership fees and loans. We discovered friends we never knew we had. Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany was extremely generous with their time, advice, and even equipment donations. The organizers of the Chatham Real Food Market were also generous with their hard-won knowledge and we never tired of consulting the co-op500 web site and the Cooperative Grocers’ Association.
By October of 2008 we were getting positive signals from our contacts in the Farm Viability grant process. We were strong contenders for an award. Then, as it often does in October, the stock market collapsed. Banks began failing, insurance companies tanked, and earnest-looking men in suits began taking all the money from the U.S. Treasury and turning it over to equally earnest-looking men in the private sector. Governor Patterson declared the state a financial basket case, and just that quickly the grant monies disappeared.
Our imagined nest egg had evaporated and with that came the realization that we had no money at all. Our friends in Chatham were struggling to raise the nearly $350,000 that they calculated was needed to open their doors. Meanwhile the Troy Community Food Co-op in Troy, NY had set for itself the astoundingly ambitious goal of raising $2.1 million before opening its doors! This knowledge made our own modest goals seem more attainable. We decided that we would solicit a loan from the county Economic Development Corporation. After all, who more likely resonate with our spirit of localism than they? We revised our already modest fund-raising goals and with some arm-twisting got our numbers man to agree that we just might be able to get started on $120,000. We approached the EDC with the hope that they would loan us half that amount. Their deliberations were slow and the fantasy of a loan was enough to carry us through the dark days of winter.
By the time January rolled around we had reached a consensus that in order for the co-op to be truly successful we needed to commit ourselves to the revitalization of downtown Gloversville. We narrowed our search for venues to the Gloversville business district and in early February connected with the owner of Dundays, the town’s oldest clothing store, who offered us the vacant store front next to him on North Main St. To us the location was perfect. It was in the center of downtown. On the north side of the building was a small park which connected Main Street with the farmers’ market pavilion on Elm Street. We saw the possibility of a synergy between the farmers’ market and our own endeavor that would benefit both. We agreed to rent the space.
By the end of February we heard from the EDC. Their charter, it seemed, did not allow them to loan money for start-ups. This was by no means a unanimous decision. Many on the board had argued strenuously in the co-op’s favor, but cooler heads had prevailed. The EDC had never lent start-up funds. It would not start now. Again we were penniless, but actually not quite. We had incorporated as a non-profit under New York’s Cooperative Corporation Law. We had a bank account. As we refined our organizational structure we had established a lifetime membership fee of $150 per household and had begun collecting that fee from our core group. We had nearly $2000 in the bank, a pittance for sure but something. We also had learned that the only sure way forward was to ask our friends and neighbors to invest in the cooperative that was going to make all our lives better. We went to our business planners and asked again that they revise downward the estimate for start-up funds. They shaved off another $10,000. $110,000, they said, was their final offer. To imagine opening the business with less was to invite certain failure.
With several weeks of intense publicity we prepared to kick off a Charter Membership Campaign on April 1 of 2009. Our plan was simple. Get 300 members at $150 to give us $45,000. The rest we would make up with “grants and loans,” the same sources that had proven so lucrative in the past. Some of our crew made a giant poster carrot with zero at the bottom and 300 at the top. We hung it in the window of the store front in preparation for our April 1 press conference. We got a telephone number (Trac fone) and set up an on-line membership option through Paypal. Then a miracle occurred when a retired dairy farmer offered to lend us $10,000. From a seemingly unlikely source a real vote of confidence in the wisdom of our endeavor.
The Charter Membership Campaign was a huge success. Many prominent community leaders made a public show of support for the market. Ordinary folks joined in droves and the money rolled in. On the downside the money also began to roll out. We began to pay rent. We had to turn on the electricity in the storefront so we could begin the work of turning it into a market. Cautiously we began to buy equipment: shelving, a dairy cooler, a three-bay sink, an approved scale, flooring, paint, etc. It became clear that the expense of not being in business would soon consume all the resources we had amassed trying to start the co-op. With this in mind in early July, a year after our initial meeting, with $19,000 in the bank, we invested $11,000 in an initial inventory, stocked the shelves of our six-hundred square foot retail space, and on July 22, 2009 we opened for business. Our staff was all-volunteer, even the manager, who worked more-than-full-time gratis for the first two months based on the promise that someday we would begin paying him (we do pay him now!), but one step at a time we have made it work.
As we approach our 1 year anniversary, things are looking good. We have money in the bank and all our bills are paid. The EDC finally recognized the wisdom of betting on a winning horse and lent us some money for equipment and expansion. We have been open six days a week every week since that first day. (We closed for two days after Thanksgiving. The uproar was so great we vowed never to do that again.) We recently hired a second employee, a part-time assistant manager. Our membership continues to grow steadily, and though we have not yet reached the fabled 300, we recently topped 220 households who, as member/owners, call the co-op ours. Most importantly, over the last nine months of operation we have put over $25,000 directly into the hands of local famers and artisans. From apples to maple syrup, salad greens to potatoes, muesli to yogurt and beyond we proudly declare that local is delicious!
(For more details on the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market including newsletters, press releases, photos and blogs, visit http://www.mohawkharvest.org or stop by the store next to Dundays at 51 North Main Street, Gloversville, NY. Tell them Jim sent you.)