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Trying to be cooperative
Community-owned market envisioned on H Street corridor
(Published September 19, 2005)

Staff Writer

Revitalization of H Street NE is charging full speed ahead to repair the commercial corridor deeply scarred by the 1968 riots. The H Street Main Street program is bringing new businesses to the area, but some residents are banding together to remedy what they see lacking from the lineup thus far: a natural foods store.

Amira Moore, a real estate agent for the area, shakes her head at rumors of a Whole Foods store opening in the area.

"Think about other places they have opened up -- they aren't this urban, this blighted," she said.

Troubled by the lack of variety and quality of produce and other fresh foods available within walking distance, Moore and a group of neighbors are in the early stages of starting the H Street Community Market.

Their vision for the cooperatively owned and operated market is a substantial grocery store with plenty of space for comfortable shopping, accessible by public transportation.

"People have this perception of food co-ops as closets, crunchy granola kind of places, and we want a real grocery store," said Moore, who chairs the new food co-op's Board of Directors.

In any cooperative business, the owners are the customers. For a grocery store, this provides consumers with democratic control over what products will be stocked. Moore said the co-op's organizers have pledged to stock locally grown and organic foods, but the rest will be decided by community members who join the cooperative.

Opening a cooperative grocery store in 2005 is much harder than it was in the back-to-nature 1970s, said Annie Donovan of the National Cooperative Bank. Huge natural foods retail chains, which did not exist then, are hard to compete against and organic food is no longer the niche market it once was. However, these dynamics also work in favor of cooperatives, resulting in a surge of inquiries about opening co-ops in the last two years, Donovan said.

"The ‘Wal-Martization' of the economy and retail, the big box and the franchising of businesses -- lots of people are longing for local, community-based, more unique shopping experiences," Donovan said.

The benefits for H Street co-op members will not end with fresh food, according to organizers. Members of the cooperative will pay $200 to become an owner, and then any operating profits that are not reinvested in the market will be split up and given back to them each year.

"When's the last time Safeway or Giant sent you a check?" Moore said.

A cooperative also gives a community control over its economy. Local farmers and other small suppliers often are supported and profits stay in the community, "rather than having speculators or entrepreneurs come in, create new businesses and the benefit goes out to McLean or Bethesda," Donovan said.

Donovan, who also is vice president of the H Street Community Market Board of Directors, hopes that the food co-op will contribute to the progress the area is making while maintaining the character and diversity of the neighborhood through product selections and services.

"What we want to do is be part of that in a way that preserves what's good about the community already," she said.

Holly Smith, also on the co-op's Board of Directors, said the group would like to incorporate education into the cooperative. They hope to find a location with enough room for a kitchen, where children can take cooking classes from local chefs and nutritionists.

For now, location scouting is only window shopping – the women estimate they are still one to two years away from opening a storefront. Their primary focus is on raising funds to conduct a professional market feasibility study. They are waiting to confirm that a co-op grocery in the H Street area will succeed before taking any other steps.

"We're going to take a methodical approach to it," Donovan said. "We're not going to slap something together."

Funding for the study will come from members, donations, fund-raisers and a seed grant from the "Food Co-op 500." The Food Co-op 500 is a program supported by the National Cooperative Bank, the National Cooperative Grocers Association and Cooperative Development Services dedicated to cultivating startup cooperatives. The program's goal is to increase the number of food co-ops in the United States from 300 to 500 by 2015.

Once the group has documented that such a venture is likely to succeed along the H Street corridor, they plan to work on increasing the membership required to purchase or rent a property. Organizers estimate that opening the store will cost at least $1 million.

Besides funding, time is the biggest challenge the board faces. A small core group of individuals has been working on this project in their spare time for the last two years. At one point, when they were close to giving up, they held a meeting to gauge community interest.

"We had over 30 people show up – on a rainy night. They were very enthusiastic, and it got us fired up again," Smith said.

The co-op's membership has grown from 10 to more than 100. While anyone will be able to shop at the H Street Community Market, organizers said making the co-op viable will require hundreds more members.

To increase support, the group plans to launch an outreach campaign, including distribution of brochures at weekend farmers' markets in the District. Individuals interested in learning more about the co-op or placing their name on the co-op's "Count-Me-In List" can write to co-op treasurer Emily Raynor at 136 R St. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator