SCHENECTADY — The organizers of the Electric City Food Co-op are still plugging away on their dream of opening a quality food store in downtown Schenectady.
It’s a dream deferred, at this point, five years after the co-op incorporated in May 2013. Despite the continued efforts of organizers, there are just fewer than 250 members, well short of the number needed to support a viable cooperative.
Kat Wolfram, president of the board of directors and longtime advocate for the co-op, concedes the journey has proven harder than she expected but says there has been progress and the group remains committed to the goal.
Just Thursday evening, it held a community meet-and-greet at Arthur’s Market in the Stockade neighborhood in an effort to attract more members.
Building the membership ranks before drawing up business and construction plans accomplishes two things: It establishes support in the community and builds a pot of money with which to start the planning process after the support is determined to exist.
Becoming a member owner costs $200. The co-op wants 300 to sign up before it commissions a marketing study.
“Food co-op startups often fail with fewer than 300 members,” Wolfram said. “That seems to be the critical mass.”
Once the market study is complete, the co-op wants to add another 300 members for a total of at least 600 before it starts construction.
Ideally, it would gain momentum as construction was underway, and reach 1,000 members by opening day. When that will happen is uncertain.
“I thought it would be an easy journey to get 300 member owners,” Wolfram said.
“I’m surprised there’s not more interest in it. I feel so passionate about this and I really thought everybody would be, especially the people who live downtown.
“Maybe we’re a little ahead of the curve,” she added.
Wolfram takes heart in knowing redevelopment is underway, and there will be a lot more people living downtown in the next few years.
She also notes that nationally, most startup co-ops take three to seven years to reach the 300-member mark.
No location has been chosen. The early hope had been to place the co-op in a 130-year-old railroad freight depot on Erie Boulevard, but six years after Wolfram first floated the idea, the crumbling building was earmarked to be demolished and replaced with a convenience store.
The Electric City Food Co-Op would attempt to address the food desert that exists in downtown Schenectady and adjacent neighborhoods where there is no supermarket within walking distance, only corner stores with higher prices and limited selection.
However, it would also need to be optimized for customers arriving by car, because most of the city (and all of the surrounding region) would not be within walking distance, wherever it is built. Adequate parking and easy access to Interstate 890 are key details the co-op board wants in its eventual location, Wolfram said.
Where the co-op will be located is the most frequent question organizers get asked; what it will sell is second. The details are sketched out but not formalized at this point. There’s a general shared vision of a multicultural place with local, organic, sustainable and fair-trade goods; a large selection of bulk foods; and a cafe with ready-to eat foods.
Workers will be paid a living wage and members will get a dividend based on how much they spend there, rather than how many hours they volunteer on site.
While the city of 65,000 has very few full-service food markets, the surrounding suburbs — Glenville, Niskayuna and Rotterdam — are loaded with more than a dozen supermarkets. The situation raises the question of how a brand-new food co-op without mass-market favorites such as Coke and Bud Light on its shelves would fare.
It will occupy a niche, Wolfram said.
“It will be a full-service grocery store,” she said. “We want to be the kind of the place you can get everything … but also find unique things.”
The organizers are receiving a lot of support from Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-Op, she said, as well as advice from the Niskayuna Co-Op, a 75-year-old town institution that is struggling to maintain market share against larger competitors with deeper pockets.
The proximity to I-890 would make the co-op attractive to people passing through the area, Wolfram said.
“I think that’s how you make this a sustainable business downtown.”
Those interested in joining or supporting Electric City Food Co-op can connect via its Facebook page; by email through its website, www.electriccityfood.coop; or by phone at 518-322-6628.