Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hub City Co-op Ownership Meeting

Tonight was the first ownership meeting of the Hub-City Co-op, and as a proud member of the vanguard of co-op owners, I can hardly wait to tell you all about it. But before I launch into the details of the meeting, I'll offer a brief background on co-ops in general, and this one in particular. For those of you that haven't been following along in the Spark, or my earlier blog posts about it. Food co-ops can take many different forms. One of the more well-known involves members fronting the costs for local farmers in exchange for regular shares of the harvest. Another is more of a "shopping collective" where members send a representative to buy produce from difficult-to-access local sources and then divvy it out to the rest of the group. The Hub City Co-op will operate with a grocery store model. First of all, anyone can shop there, and buy whatever they want. Hours will reflect those of a normal grocery store. The products will be locally-produced and regional foods and dry goods, with an emphasis on ethical production.

Stop right there. This is huge for Spartanburg. The closest co-operative grocery store is in Hendersonville. Greenville doesn't even have one. The only option for buying local right now is either the farmer's market (if you can wake up that early on a Saturday morning and the farmer whose goods you want happens to show up) or networking individually with the hundreds of often-isolated local producers. Most of us who want to shop locally and ethically just aren't able to overcome that kind of hassle. The co-op grocery store will put fresh, healthy, local food right in our hands for the buying. Not to mention the kind of community hub that a co-op grocery becomes. It will have a cafe and a giant community bulletin, a whole wall. It will partner with local chefs and all sorts of community groups to offer free classes and all kinds of other programming. It will unite fragmented sectors of Spartanburg in ways we couldn't even dream up.

Then there's the matter of ownership. The co-op is a community-owned for-profit business. It has an executive task force but they answer to the body of owners. It is $150 for a lifetime share. Or $25 a year, or, if you're really strapped for cash they will work with you to trade "sweat equity" for ownership. What does that get you? Special discounts and sales. A share in the profits when they start coming in (it will take a few years). But mostly, the rights, responsibility, and pride of a full-fledged owner. This could mean a lot or a little. We have voting rights, but some owners may abstain from voting. We are not obligated to volunteer, but the whole thing rests on our commitment to spreading the word and pooling our talents, resources, and labor to make it happen. It's our passion and energy, our baby. You may be asking, what happens if the whole effort falls through? There's always that chance. The money was taken in good faith that the co-op is actually going to happen, and if not, for whatever reason, the ownership fee will be reimbursed. But you know what, even if I never see my $150 again, it's worth it. The dream is so big, the adventure so exciting, the potential payoff so great, it's worth every penny.

I don't know if I've quite gotten my glowing vision into your head yet, but I want to move on to the actual meeting. You can read more on the website.

The Barrett room at the library was pretty much full. There were somewhere between 30 and 40 owners present and a handful of non-owners. Highlights of the agenda include a financial status review, owner count (113 owners as of the beginning of the meeting), discussion of an upcoming fundraiser, and discussion and vote on a new possible location.

The new possible location was by far the most exciting news to report. You know where Kimbrell's Furniture Store used to be, next to Monsoon, right across from Morgan Square? That's the one. I thought that the empty space in the Hub-Bub building was a great spot (though the rent was ridiculous) but this spot beats that one all over the place. First of all, it's RIGHT DOWNTOWN. You can't get any more downtown than Morgan Square. Think of the visibility, the foot traffic. Secondly, the Hub-Bub building was pretty much an empty shell. They were going to have to upfit it with plumbing, electricity, lighting, everything. The estimated upfitting costs were $300,000. That's right, a third of a million dollars just to get the space usable and that's not even talking about inventory, rent, utilities, etc. The Kimbrell building, on the other hand, had been fully operational as a furniture store. A large part of the upfitting would be cosmetic. They had estimated upfitting to be around $75,000, but then admitted that the estimate was probably on the underside. So let's, for the heck of it, double the upfitting cost and say $150,000 (that's being overly generous) Still half the cost of renovating the Hub-Bub building.

Next, there's the matter of square footage. The Hub-Bub space had 6,000. Big enough, sure. The Kimbrell building has up to 28,000 sq. feet of available space, and the Co-op wouldn't have to take it all. That's the main floor, a full basement, and an upper "mezzanine" that would be used for administrative offices. The details of the lease offer are confidential, but let me just say that the offer is, as the phrase went in the meeting, "aggressively competitive." The owner was there, too. Wesley Hammond. I like him. Unlike most of the other downtown property owners, who apparently would rather let their storefronts sit there and rot than open them up to anyone with less than ten thousand dollars to wave in their face, he has been letting community groups use the space while it is in between tenants - for example, Hub-Bub's Bring Your Own Art sale this past December. Actually, that's how he got hooked up with the Co-op. They had a booth during the event and he approached them with his wife saying something like "Would you be interested in this space?" See, if he hadn't been putting the building to good use, this beautiful connection never would have happened. Assuming this story has a happy ending, I hope the rest of downtown's property owners are taking notes.

We voted on moving forward with the new space. You would think, from my description at least, that this would be a no-brainer. But there was a lot of debate. It centered, mostly, around three concerns. One was parking. During the lunch and dinner rush, it can be pretty tough to find a spot on Main Street. There are a few spaces on the Broad Street entrance. And people were concerned about having to walk any further than that, for example to the city parking lot on Broad Street, or the parking garage on the other side of Morgan Square. In answer, one owner who had lived in an urban area testified to the feasibility of walking a little ways to the grocery store, especially if armed with one of those collapsible shopping buggies that could be sold at the store itself. Others described the loading dock in the back and how volunteers, perhaps even fundraising groups from schools, could offer assistance with groceries, similar to traditional grocers like Publix.

Most of those who were hesitant about the new space just wanted to see more numbers, more facts. Especially about the true cost of upfitting, since that figure seemed a little weak. That is perfectly reasonable of them. But nobody is committing just yet. A lot of owners have to sign on, a lot of funds have to be raised in the next ninety day period, before the lease can be signed. In the meantime, Ashley, the founder, is crunching the numbers and hashing out the business plan and will be doing her best to provide all the information she can.

Another concern, or perhaps alternative, brought up, was the concept of "starting small." We all love going in with a bang, but often it is more sustainable to start up a business in a small location with lower overhead, and growing steadily from there. I am all for this and think many an endeavor in Spartanburg has suffered "blow-out" by launching on too grand a scale.

But in all honesty, the Kimbrell building is being offered for the same price as many smaller buildings in less-desirable locations. Ashley has been doing the research for months, trying to find the perfect spot, and could continue to search for years before picking. A man in the back row made this point very clearly. But since we all want to see it actually get off the ground, it behooves us to move forward with the best thing we've got going, and focus our hard work and energy on getting owners, educating the community, and actually bringing the store to fruition.

There were two votes; the first in favor of sticking with the Hub-Bub building (no takers) the second, for moving forward with the Kimbrell building. It seemed that most of the good handful who abstained from voting would have liked to see a third vote - in favor of continuing research on locations, including the Kimbrell building, before moving forward with any one. But their point was clearly made, even if they didn't get to raise their hand. And the majority of voters agreed that the Kimbrell building was too good an opportunity, with too little to lose. We will re-evaluate down the road if we have to, but in the meantime, we're acting with the image of the Kimbrell building in our minds.

The deal got even sweeter when we got to the discussion of the fundraiser. First, the W's in a nutshell:

What: "Spring for Your Community:" Live music, art auction, used book drive, silent auction, ownership drive.
Who: Hub City Co-op in partnership with the Spartanburg Charter School.
When: Saturday, March 27, from 12 to 8pm
Where: 127 W Main, St., Spartanburg (i.e., the Kimbrell Furniture Building)

Wesley Hammond has been gracious enough to allow us to use the building for fundraising/marketing purposes. Even before making any official commitments. He wants the Co-op to happen as much as we do, and furthermore, he wants it to happen in his space. Is he awesome or what?

To conclude, the Co-op's new timeline is in two phases. The first is 90 days of marketing, fundraising, and serious ownership drives. Pending our target figures are reached, the next phase is moving into the space, upfitting it, stocking, hiring, etc, getting it ready for the grand opening in August. If the target figures are not reached, we will go from there and figure out the next move, but there are at least 113 of us who are prepared to teach Spartanburg the meaning of perserverance.

The meeting came to a close with some discussion about pulling the March 27th event together, and stressing the need to get the word out to everybody and their dog. I'm leaving in three weeks, but I'm trying my darndest to spread the word as best I can 'til then.

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