Dreams for a member-owned grocery in Willmar have run up against reality, as the cooperative's board decided to give up on the project after it couldn't raise enough money from members.
The Willmar Community-Owned Grocery has 668 members but could only raise about $157,000 of the $600,000 it needed to open a full-service grocery.
"We fell woefully short," said Marv Calvin, a member of the cooperative's board and mayor of Willmar. "When you take a look at the amount of money needed from each individual person, it wasn't that much. But the demographics of the majority of our membership was that they weren't the people in the community with deep pockets."
The organization, formed in 2010, had hired an outreach coordinator, contracted with consultants and signed a lease at a liquor store complex on U.S. Hwy. 12. Calvin said they had hoped to open a grocery store stocked with locally grown food by the first quarter of 2015.
But members weren't investing enough, and the lease for the space expired in December. The board decided it didn't make sense to renew the lease without more financial support from members. A recent round of fundraising yielded only $16,000, which wasn't encouraging.
Raising money from members is always the hardest part of starting a cooperative, and often even the most sensible plans don't attract enough equity, said Kevin Edberg, director of Cooperative Development Services in St. Paul who was an early consultant for the Willmar community-owned grocery.
Willmar's plan was "not pie in the sky," but it was never a slam dunk, either, Edberg said.
"They have tried really, really, really hard, and I think they've had some great leadership," Edberg said.
"It's not the quintessential market for natural and local foods. It's a regional center, but the demographics are a little bit more challenging."
Lower median family income and the lack of a liberal arts college make it a tougher task to open a co-op in a place like Willmar. Towns like St. Peter with Gustavus Adolphus, Decorah, Iowa, with Luther and Northfield with St. Olaf are all able to support cooperative groceries.
"College towns certainly fit a part of that demographic well," Edberg said.
The board in Willmar expects to return as much of the money to members as it can, but those who funded the cooperative won't get all their money back. Marvin said about half the $157,000 remains, and legal fees are yet to be paid. Members of the cooperative will vote April 9 on what to do with the money.
Edberg said pulling the plug when a cooperative can't raise enough money is not a failure. It's a typical outcome and hopefully the people involved have new skills they can use to support local food in some other way.
Marvin is still hopeful that Willmar can eventually build a member-owned grocery.
"We planted the seed. We got it in good, fertile soil, and now it just needs to be watered and nurtured, fertilized a little more and hopefully we'll have this community-owned grocery deal grow in the future," he said. "We just don't know when that is."