Wednesday October 10, 2012

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Organizers of a proposed downtown food cooperative say a $350,000 federal grant that would have helped renovate their preferred market space on Main Street has been denied, sending the effort back to the original plan.

That plan, according to Better Bennington Corp. Executive Director John Shannahan, requires people to buy shares in the fledgling non-profit.

"We're going back to plan A," Shannahan said. "When we first started talking about the co-op the grant wasn't even an option. Plan A is to grow equity and selling shares."

Organizers, including Kelly McElheny, president of the board that is behind the Southshire Community Market, had hoped to open this fall. She and others have been working with existing co-operatives around the state, including the Brattleboro Food Co-op, to help develop the market.

The group found a Main Street location and worked out a lease agreement, and had hoped to use the federal grant to help renovate the space to meet the market's needs. Shannahan said Tuesday that a new location may be needed since the significant amount of money that plan relied on is no longer an option.

Shannahan said the board was planning to meet Tuesday to discuss locations and may look for "more of a turn-key location."

"There was always a couple of options. The space, originally, needed a lot of work. There's a lot of construction work that we won't be doing now," he said.

The grant was a possibility because the area has been determined to be a "food desert" by the U.S Department of Agriculture. That means a significant part of the local population does not have access to healthy, affordable food.

McElheny said the 18 projects around the country that did receive funding averaged awards of more than $748,000 each. Each of the areas selected for funding had higher poverty rates, or would create more jobs, she said.

"It wasn't that we and a bad application, it was that they had a higher need," she said. "It was a bummer that we didn't get the grant, but when you look at who did it makes sense that they did."

The cooperative, if the grant had been approved, was slated to open around the new year, according to McElheny. There will likely be a delay now, as the board looks to raise equity through members.

"It's not a setback in that we're not going to continue to move forward. It's a setback in that, if we had gotten the funding, we could have started the construction next week," she said. "It's just going to be a matter of raising that initial equity."

The board will now focus efforts on selling ownership shares. The $200 lifetime shares will provide an ownership stake in the cooperative. So far, 36 have been sold. McElheny said she is hoping to sell 100 shares before opening.

"Now, it's a matter of, how many weeks does it take us to get 100 members?" McElheny said. "It's just a matter of continuing to reach out to the community."

The shares will could one day pay a dividend if the market is successful, Shannahan said.

The board is working on applying for another grant through Vermont Department of Agriculture, according to McElheny. "As grant funding becomes available we'll be applying for it," she said.