NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Discussion of a proposed food cooperative drew about 75 people to Monday's Select Board meeting, even though the board lacks any real authority to impact the food market now under development.
Kelly McElheny, president of the planned Southshire Community Market, presented the food cooperative's business plan to the Select Board and explained a $350,000 grant the group has applied for through the Better Bennington Corp. The market was placed on the agenda for the meeting after Lucinda Bedard of Spice ‘n Nice appeared before the board two weeks ago and said the grant-funded market presented unfair competition.
"It is a federal program and not a state program and not a local program," he said.
McElheny said she began to look seriously at developing a food cooperative last November after seeing that many local families in the downtown area had barriers to grocery shopping. "I just started thinking to myself there has got to be a better for way us to go grocery shopping here in downtown," she said.
She eventually began working with the BBC and officials from the Brattleboro cooperative that helped with the legal filings required to launch the local effort. The group then applied for the federal grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"It was not an easy task to accomplish," McElheny said. "This has been every week since the beginning of April trying to get this business off the ground and running."
Bedard said at the previous Select Board meeting that the grant funding was providing "free money" to the cooperative that would create unfair competition. McElheny said the grant money would come with stringent requirements, including hiring as many as 14 local residents to work at the cooperative.
"We have to pay back every $25,000 that we don't create a job with. And here's how that works. Fourteen jobs is not just 14 $18,000-a-year jobs. We've got 10 $18,000-a-year jobs and then we've got four to five upper management jobs that pay considerably well," she said. "If it's feasible and we can forego profits we are going to give the maximum wage that we possibly can for those employees."
Most of the jobs will go to low-income residents, and "single moms will be our first focus," followed by participants in a local youth horticulture program, McElheny said.
"Under the grant 75 percent of those jobs have to go to low-income jobs. Period. There's not way around that," she said.
Several people in the large crowd also spoke about the proposed market. One woman said a downtown grocer would alleviate many of the issues she and her friends face when trying to purchase food.
"I am a low-income person who happens to be a little bit lucky to have had a car given to me. But being low income, I have a lot of low-income friends who always need rides to Price Chopper and other businesses," the woman said. "I know, for myself, I would be very interested in a co-op if it's low priced, because I'd be able to spend not only on healthy food, I wouldn't have to worry about how much am I paying at something from one of the corner stores because that's the only place I can get to."
Bennington resident Judy Murphy noted that every other county in the state has a food cooperative. It would provide those that need a downtown food option with healthy choices, she said.
"What we're talking about here is affordable, healthy foods available to a population that doesn't have that access right now. I shop at spice n nice. I like it very much. But, I can't afford to do all of my grocery shopping there," she said. "I don't see any losers here, and I think it would be a great enhancement to our downtown."
The owners of Crazy Russian Girls Bakery and the South Street Café also spoke. Both expressed some concern over the cooperative, but said a thriving market could benefit the downtown. A potential coffee shop or bakery within the co-op could hurt, however, they said.
Another resident, Allison Church, urged the community to ask hard questions about the cooperative. She said the food cooperatives she has frequented have not had many low-income shoppers. Additionally, Bedard's store is already meeting the community's needs, she said.
"In my mind, Spice ‘n Nice has gone out of its way to accommodate the needs and desires of the community," she said.
Select Board member Chris Oldham made a motion Monday to have a letter of support drafted in favor of the cooperative. The motion was seconded by Jim Carroll, but failed on a 2 to 5 vote.
Each board member said they supported the cooperative, but did not think it was appropriate for the board to support a single business.