The Early History of F4DC’s Role in Community-Based Efforts to Build a Cooperative Grocery Store at Bessemer Center

Bessemer Center, Northeast Greensboro (Photo by Eric Ginsburg, Yes Weekly)

Earlier this week, I drafted this history to clear up some confusions about how and when work on the Renaissance Community Coop started, and the role that F4DC has played. We decided to post this history on our website so that more people have access to it during this period when City Council is deciding whether and how it will support the coop. We also thought that in the long term (5-10 years from now), people might be interested to see in some detail the ways that F4DC has chosen to work in its local community. You can see that community organizing of the kind we’re supporting on the grocery store project is connected to long time frames, networks of relationships, and developing ideas.

It’s important to say that this particular written history mainly covers the early work on the coop, which was spearheaded by F4DC. At this point, in 2013, the coop development work is led by the Renaissance Cooperative Committee, to which F4DC provides technical support. But in 2011 and most of 2012, F4DC was playing the leading role, which is why this history is titled the way it is: its emphasis is on the early days, before the RCC had assumed the lead. I eagerly await the history as written by the RCC, which will have its own perspective and community-based flavor!

Since 1998, when the Winn-Dixie closed, Ed Whitfield (co-director of F4DC) and I have independently followed and occasionally connected to Northeast Greensboro residents’ efforts to bring a grocery store to the site of the old Winn-Dixie. Both of us attended early meetings of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, just to see what was going on, and to lend our occasional support as private citizens.

In 2010 and 2011, Ed and I established a tighter focus for F4DC’s work, with a strong emphasis on cooperative economics. In the course of entering this arena, we discussed among ourselves the possibility of a community-owned grocery store on Phillips Avenue.

In fall of 2011, Ed and I had a discussion with Goldie Wells (President of Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice (CEEJ) and founder of Concerned Citizens) about the possibility of a coop grocery store in the site of the old Winn-Dixie. At that time, Goldie wasn’t particularly interested, because she thought Sav-a-Lot was coming in. By the end of that year, it was apparent that the Sav-aLot deal was dead.

In winter-spring of 2011-2012, Ed and Sohnie Black (an F4DC staff member with a personal interest in the grocery store) began mentioning the idea of a coop grocery store in CEEJ and Concerned Citizens meetings. People showed interest, and a few took home copies of a “how to” manual for starting food coops put out by the National Cooperative Grocers Association that we circulated.

In March of 2012, I reached out to Dyan Arkin, the City Planning Department staff member with responsibility for the Bessemer Center, to discuss the possibility of a coop grocery store. It took a while to set up the meeting, but we finally met in early June. Dyan went to some length to help us understand the history of the by-that-time “past due” contract with East Market Street Development Corporation and New Bessemer Associates (the 75% occupancy deal). She encouraged us to give the coop grocery a try, since there seemed to be no other action on the Center at that time.

On July 10th, Ed, Sohnie, and I convened an exploratory meeting with Ralph Johnson, Bob Davis (co-chairs of Concerned Citizens), Wes McGuire, Mac Sims (East Market Street Development Corporation), Jim Kee, and Dyan Arkin, in which we explained how coops work, and asked for their ideas about whether/how to proceed. Goldie Wells was invited to the meeting but was unable to attend.

The very next morning, with no consultation with F4DC, Concerned Citizens or CEEJ, Jim scheduled a press conference at the Bessemer Center, and at least one TV station filmed Jim’s press conference. The news story, which can be viewed in its entirety here, included these statements and quotes:

The Concerned Citizens group who live in East Greensboro is talking about starting a co-op grocery store. In this case it would be owned by investors and people in the community who would also invest.

“The great thing about a co-op is that the community gets to decide what they want in the store, how they want the store to look, how they want the store to operate,” said Kee.

Jim also mentioned F4DC’s role in helping to find financing for a coop grocery store and compared the potential of the Northeast Greensboro effort to the recent successful coop grocery startup in Burlington, Company Shops Market. (F4DC had provided information about Company Shops the night before, as an example of how a community came together to build itself a grocery store.)

In late July and early August, Ed, Sohnie, and I made presentations about the coop approach at CEEJ, Concerned Citizens, and Woodmere Park neighborhood association meetings, to drum up interest for a field trip to Company Shops Market.

On August 8, 2012, F4DC sponsored the field trip to Company Shops Market, and took 2 van-loads of folks from the neighborhood to tour, eat lunch, and talk to a founding board member and the general manager of Company Shops. Jim Kee, Ralph Johnson, Bob Davis, Goldie Wells, and Mac Sims were on the trip, as were many of the people who went on to form the core of the RCC Steering Committee. About 25 people from the neighborhood decided over lunch at Company Shops to continue to explore how they might, as ordinary people working together, form a coop grocery store.

Throughout the fall, these folks met regularly, studied, and got more people involved. Jim Kee attended a few of these meetings. In November, the group decided to formalize its organizational efforts, and voted to name itself the Renaissance Coop Committee, because they knew the name of the shopping center was slated to change and because they liked the association with the concept of “rebirth.” The Renaissance Coop Committee publicized the fact that they would be electing officers at their next meeting in December. A front page Peacemaker article featured the RCC and its efforts.

In its December 3rd meeting, which, like all its meetings, was open to the public, the RCC elected officers and decided to commission a market study, to assess the viability of operating a full-service grocery store. Jim Kee was in attendance at that meeting, and Ed asked him if it was time for the community to formally ask the City to stop seeking a grocery store for the site, because the coop was going to take care of that need. Jim responded that there was no need to slow the process down since it had been many years since the grocery store had closed and there was no progress. “You couldn’t go any slower,” he said. He then went on to say that he wanted to remain open to any and all proposals, but that there was nothing in the works at that time.

Two weeks later, at a specially called CEEJ meeting to discuss the proposed sale of Redevelopment Commission property on Phillips Avenue to Dollar General, Skip Alston made an announcement that he was working with a group of investors who wanted to bring a full service grocery store and a renovated shopping center to the Bessemer Center. He stated that he had been working with Jim Kee on this for a few weeks. When coop people in the crowd asked Skip if he knew that there was a community group interested in opening a community owned cooperative grocery store, he responded that he did not know anything about that. Skip was then asked if his group of developers would be interested in working with the coop in a scenario where the coop group would operate the grocery store and his developers would operate businesses in the remainder of the Center. He responded that his group was not interested in that. “No,” he said. “We want the whole thing.”

The next night, at the December 18th City Council meeting, Jim Kee formally asked City Council to work with the new development group that Skip represented on the proposal that would include giving the ownership of Renaissance Center to Skip’s group of investors. In that discussion he made no mention of the community’s interest in opening a coop grocery store. In his presentation, Jim stated that he had been working with Skip on the project for the past two months.

Epilogue: In mid-February, 2013, Skip contacted the RCC to offer the coop a corner of the grocery store that his group of investors would own and operate and to say that the coop might even have its own cash register there. He was told that the coop was interested in opening a full service grocery store, not just a fresh vegetable section of a larger store. He said that he did not know this. It was later erroneously reported to City Council that Skip’s investors had offered to support the coop and that the coop had rejected the offer.

Since that time, there has been continued work in the community by the RCC leadership group and growing understanding and support for the coop grocery store. Skip and his investors met with the RCC and amended their original offer to say that they are now willing to lease the grocery store space to the coop at the same rates the coop requested from the City. RCC also met with New Bessemer Associates, the developers who are seeking the contract for doing the construction and upfit work on the Center, but are not seeking ownership. They too expressed a willingness to work with the coop and offered the fact that they had built the successful Deep Roots expansion as proof of their competence and willingness to work with coops.

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