News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, October 18, 2012
Blue Hill Co-op takes “small step” toward relocation

by Anne Berleant

The Blue Hill Co-op is seeking to expand its size, and toward that end, it purchased an option to buy a 5.5-acre property on South Street, next to Mainescape.

“The option on the property is a small step in a long process that hopefully ends with the co-op relocating,” said board president Mia Strong in a recent telephone call. “Right now, it’s an empty lot [with] lots of trees.”

The purchase option “only commits us to giving two more years to study the feasibility of the move,” said Strong. “We’re not saying this is it, but we’re not saying this is not it.”

The board first needs to determine how much a new store would cost and how much money would need to be raised, Strong said. “We’re really still looking at everything that needs to go in, [and a way of] coming up with the rest of the money to purchase the property.”

Relocating an “ongoing” plan

The relocation committee, which spent three months looking at properties before recommending the South Street lot, has been “an ongoing thing for quite a few years,” said Strong.

Transition within the board and a change in the general manager in the past 18 months kicked the committee into a higher gear.

The previous general manager, who left in 2010, was given the responsibility to start the process, Strong said, with the board allocating funds for a feasibility study.

At that time, the general manager and co-op members filled the relocation committee.

With changes in its board and general manager between 2010 and 2011, “there was a lot of upheaval,” said Strong. “We started to stabilize … and really wanted to get a new relocation committee that was board-based.”

Strong said the economic downturn and board members who had completed their term lengths contributed to that period of instability.

At the same time, the number of board members, which had dwindled to a low of three, rose back up to 10.

“We really recruited people committed to help[ing] the co-op move forward,” said Strong, who was elected president in September 2011.

Purchasing the option seemed like a “very safe way” to approach relocation, Strong said. “It’s kind of exciting but it’s not so much risk.”

“If we don’t feel we can build there, [the property] could be an asset on the books—it’s one possibility,” Strong said. “What we really hope is that we’ll be able to figure out how to get the co-op there … and come up with the funds needed.”

The option represents 10 percent of the purchase price of the property; Strong declined to disclose that amount.

A store with many owners

Co-op members (also called owners) contribute equity of $200 to join, payable in $20 increments over 10 years, and may participate in board meetings. Members can also choose to contribute two hours of work per month for a 10 percent discount on purchases.

The purchase of the option did not require member approval, Strong said. “The board is representative of the owners.”

The board announced the purchase option of the South Street property at its annual picnic on October 7.

“I think there was excitement. For a long time there’s been this knowing that we need to relocate,” said Strong.

Founded in 1974, first as a buying club and then growing into its current, 1,800 square foot location, the co-op would like to enlarge its café space, expand its check-out lines and be able to offer a greater variety of fresh, local products.

“Those are just some of the kind of things on the dreamy wish list of what could happen. As we move forward with the realities of cost of things, it might be reined in a little,” Strong said.

Increasing its purchases from local farmers, whether of produce or fresh meat, is something “universally that’s been on most board members’ minds,” said General Manager Mark Deany, in a recent telephone call. “But we haven’t talked about how it’s going to happen.”

“Supporting the local economy is part of our mission statement,” Deany continued. “It’s something we have to do and figure out how to make it equitable for our owners and the people providing the services: farmers and local producers.”

Also, having the opportunity to employ more people in the community “would be a plus,” Strong said, acknowledging that the working-member option is perhaps not as popular as it used to be—“people have busy lives,” she said. But the program “really keeps people connected to the co-op. It’s one of the reasons we stand out.” Strong sees finding a balance between an increase in employees and using working members.

The 5.5-acre lot on South Street could hold 5,000 square feet of retail space, with another 3,000 for operations and offices.