As groceries move out of the city’s urban neighborhoods, residents sometimes are left with a feeling of powerlessness. A Louisville group hopes to give some of that power back to the people through a plan to start a grocery that interested residents would own a part of. They’d also have a say in what kind of goods and services are offered at the co-op store.
“We see this as a great opportunity for neighborhood leaders and folks around the larger community to create something that we want,” said Cassia Herron, president of the Louisville Association for Community Economics. “… We know that it’s going to be a direct reflection of the needs and desires of people in the neighborhoods where the grocery store would be located, as well as other investors.”
A location hasn’t been chosen, but regions of interest include neighborhoods near downtown, such as Smoketown, Shelby Park and Old Louisville, and in west Louisville, such as Russell, Portland and Shawnee.
In the following Q&A, Herron explains more about the project. (Some answers have been edited for style and condensed.)
Q. What is cooperative economics? Does that mean I’m pooling my money together with other interested persons or with my neighbors or all of the above?
A. Yes, all of the above, so essentially, we’re saying that as an individual, I don’t have the resources or the capacity to open a grocery store as a sole proprietor, but together we can use our social capital, we can use the experience that we have. We can use our connections and we can pool our money together.
Q. Pool money to get a loan?
A. We pool our money together to have some cash to start with. … Once we launch our membership campaign, our goal will be to secure 1,000 member owners, and if we are looking at a $100 investment from member owners, that would give us $100,000 to start with and then that would help us leverage traditional loans.
Q. Is there a favored location for the grocery?
A. We want the member owners to really take control in making sure that we choose the right location. We understand that real estate is not much of an issue right now — that there’s tons of potential properties — but what’s important is really galvanizing the interest of the member owners and potential workers, so that’s what we’ve been doing, just really engaging people and talking to people about the importance of this sort of business structure to fill this need.
Q. Would people in economically challenged areas be able to afford to contribute?
A. We like to look at the neighborhoods as assets and the people in the neighborhoods as assets. We know that people are buying groceries and people are buying other things. … Folks may not have the same sort of expendable income as others, but we know that people have money and people are really, really interested in being a part of owning something. You may not be able to own your own home, but how awesome would it be to be able to say I have some ownership in this business and I support it weekly?
We’re looking at models from other co-ops to give people … flexibility in how they pay and we’re also looking at discounting seniors’ investment since we know there are tons of seniors in our community that have been affected by the lack of grocery stores and we want them to be able to invest.
Q. So it would be a real empowerment project?
A. We know that grocery stores take at least three years to be profitable … but when the store is profitable, you’ll have member owners who then get to decide whether or not we pay ourselves with those profits or if we invest in other cooperatively owned businesses, if we invest in the local T-ball team, if we help send kids to college, if we help seniors rehab their homes.
Q. What would the grocery itself be like. Would there be a focus on any particular type of goods?
A. [One of the association’s goals] is really to contribute to the regional and local food economy. Making our store a viable market for local producers, whether they are farmers or food entrepreneurs, is also a goal of ours. We also want the food to be affordable, so we’ll have conventional foods in the grocery store and we hope that it’s a full-service grocery. There are several different models of co-ops across the country.
My dream would be to get Heine Brothers’ to have a coffee shop in our grocery store. But it’s also important, I think, for seniors to have a place to get medicine — a pharmacy. A lot of these neighborhoods don’t have banks. It would be great to have a banking institution, whether it’s a traditional bank or a credit union.
Q. Are there any goals in terms of dates, such as when you’d hope to open a grocery?
A. We’ve been kind of roughly organized for three years. It’ll be two years kind of hitting the ground running and it’s all been based on volunteer [work], and so right now, we have a goal of raising $100,000 within the next few months, pretty aggressive, so that we can hire a project manager, and that project manager would help lead our member-owner campaign, so we would then begin raising the shares for the store.
We hope to incorporate the business in the next few months. We’ve identified some attorneys to help us … so having the business incorporated and then launching the membership campaign are the next goals for us, and that’s all contingent upon us raising that $100,000 to pay somebody for about 18 months of works.
Q. How crucial is it for these neighborhoods to get a grocery or increased access to food, especially nutritious food.
A. It’s important for people’s quality of life, for individuals, for their health but also for families to be able to not have the burden of having to drive halfway across the city and the county (to shop for essentials) … and it’s also important for neighborhoods’ commercial activity and development.
Q: Is there anything else you want to convey?
A: The reason that we chose the neighborhoods that we chose are one because there’s need … but the other reason is that those neighborhoods are using cooperative economics right now with Fresh Stop Markets, and so New Roots and Fresh Stop Markets have demonstrated that people believe in cooperative economics and that cooperative economics can be a way in which people get access to not just healthy food but local organic food. … What we see is that our work is an extension of the Fresh Stop Markets and that we would be working in cooperation with them.
To learn more
Herron will be giving a talk, “How Research and Politics have Shaped Louisville’s Food System,” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Bellarmine University at the Centro building. The event will be in Hilary’s meeting room on the first floor.