Food co-ops will collaborate in effort to open market in downtown Schenectady

Chad Currin, vice president of the Electric City Food Co-Op board of directors, picks up produce at the Schenectady Greenmarket on May 2, 2021.
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Chad Currin, vice president of the Electric City Food Co-Op board of directors, picks up produce at the Schenectady Greenmarket on May 2, 2021.

SCHENECTADY — The nascent Electric City Food Co-op will work with a long-established Albany co-op to help Electric City move closer to opening a market in downtown Schenectady.

Electric City and Honest Weight Food Co-op on Monday announced the formation of a joint exploratory committee to push the process forward. 

The ultimate goal is clear: Since 2013, Electric City has sought to open a storefront marketplace with healthy and local food options downtown, which is one of the city’s food deserts — a place where few options exist to buy groceries.

But no framework has been set for how the new partnership might achieve that goal, or make it more achievable. 

Adine Viscusi, a member of the Electric City board of directors, said Monday that any option along the continuum is possible, from Honest Weight offering advice to being a partner to Electric City folding itself into Honest Weight.

The thought is that collaboration, in whatever form, will result in a food co-op opening in Schenectady sooner, Viscusi said.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said Monday’s announcement appears to be a significant step in opening a grocery store downtown, something his administration has been working to accomplish with the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority in recent years.

Still, he said a number of details must be worked through before the plans come to fruition.

“This seems to be a substantial step forward in serving the needs of what has been an underserved community,” McCarthy said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be able to progress into an actual working relationship and store sometime in the future.”

McCarthy declined to say whether the news would give the co-op a better chance of securing federal stimulus funds that the city is allocating, noting the applications are still in the process of being reviewed. 

The two co-ops’ joint committee plans to meet over the next two to three months and said it will keep member-owners of both organizations updated.

SLOW MOTION

After more than eight years, Electric City has 435 member-owners. 

It has previously said it needs at least 1,000 member-owners before it can consider making the investment to open a storefront.

Honest Weight, formed in 1976, now has more than 10,000 owner members and operates a 30,000-square-foot store in Albany with nearly 200 employees and $29 million in annual sales.

Closer to Schenectady, the Niskayuna Co-op has had more than 30,000 members since 1943 but it has suffered declining sales in recent years.

Electric City has struggled against headwinds as it tries to build enough momentum that it can commit to construction.

Schenectady County’s population is growing slowly and residents already have many choices in a crowded retail landscape. Downtown real estate is expensive. The number of people interested in making a special trip or paying more to buy local or healthful foods is finite. The COVID pandemic interrupted the retail model and made construction much more expensive.

Electric City began an online marketplace in the spring of 2021 in an effort to keep the organization in the public eye but suspended it at the end of the summer. Viscusi said online retail will be part of whatever model the co-op settles on.

Under the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative, which sent $10 million to Schenectady, Electric City Food Co-Op was considered but rejected for a $1.5 million grant toward the estimated $4.1 million cost of construction.

The city is now considering allocations for the roughly $38 million left in its $53 million piece of the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The city has received 70 applications for nearly $80 million in combined funding.

Electric City is among them, asking $2.5 million for construction costs now estimated at $6.7 million.

The Electric City Food Co-op is envisioned as a place not just to buy food but to learn about healthy food choices. It would be a conduit for area farmers, and a source of local jobs. It also would offer a community room and an incubator kitchen for entrepreneurial chefs.

Electric City and Honest Weight said they’d be out in the public in-person and electronically in the weeks and months to come, seeking public input and providing information.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady

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