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Remodel of former grocery space in Butte

The area of the former Stokes Market grocery store on Harrison Avenue shows a bare space that's being prepared for the expansion of True Value hardware store and the inclusion of two dollar stores.

Organizers spearheading an effort to establish a food cooperative in Butte say they hope to have a grocery business up and running sometime in February or March.

That’s a tall order, considering that the process normally takes around five years.

The average start time to launch a food cooperative was mentioned during a June public meeting on the initiative. Julie Jaksha and Steve Thompson — who respectively head the economic-development organization Headwaters RC&D and the National Center for Appropriate Technology — hosted the June meeting, which drew around 165 attendees.

Another public meeting was held Monday night in the ballroom of the Thornton Building, at which time Jaksha called the goal of a spring opening “an aggressive timeline” but expressed optimism.

Behind that optimism is the proposed location of the new cooperative.

Volunteers — who in June joined several steering committees geared toward getting the cooperative started — hope to launch the grocery in the former location of Hennessy Market.

Formerly located in the Sears Building on West Granite Street, Hennessy Market grocery store unexpectedly closed in March after its owner Dylan Pederson posted a sign notifying customers that the store would be “closed until further notice."

Steering committee member Leo Prigge told a crowd of more than 50 Monday that the Hennessey Market location is a “turnkey” business — meaning that co-op organizers won’t have to worry about locating a building, purchasing equipment and extensively renovating a space. Jaksha added Tuesday that vendor relationships with the former grocer have already been established, giving organizers a template to work from.

Committee members Monday also said they’ve received a lot of support from building owner Nick Kujawa, leadership from Bozeman’s Community Food Co-op, the Stokes family of Stokes Fresh Food Market, and members of the national organization the Food Co-op Initiative, who they say have agreed to share their wisdom with the Butte effort.

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Unlike a traditional for-profit business, co-operatives are owned by members of the community and are governed democratically by a board.

Some food co-ops are owned by employees, while others are owned by producers who want to combine forces and create a venue for selling their goods. But perhaps the most familiar form of the cooperative is the customer-owned model in which customers can become members and can own a stake in the business. But regardless of how many shares an individual owns of the business, he or she only gets one vote on the board.

Thompson said Monday the most likely model for the Butte cooperative would be the customer-ownership model.

Prigge, meanwhile, told audience members that startup and operational costs for the Butte cooperative will be between $350,000 to $500,000, which organizers hope to cover through fundraising, membership sales, sales of preferred stock and debt financing.

Prigge noted that a food cooperative is different from most other businesses banks are used to dealing with, so the cooperative can’t rely heavily on bank loans.

“We’re going to need the community to support this thing,” he said.

Committee members also shared results of a survey they posted in June, the aim of which was to gauge public interest in the food cooperative and shoppers’ preferences. The survey elicited around 700 responses, according to organizers, who said that respondents overwhelmingly preferred an Uptown location for the proposed cooperative and preferred organic and local produce and meat, among other grocery items.

A member of the audience asked if the survey gave demographic information about respondents — whether respondents had been 700 Uptown residents. Thompson said the survey did not capture information regarding respondents’ locations.

Also unveiled Monday was a crowdfunding campaign for start-up and planning activities. The campaign, which organizers are calling a “seed fund,” can be accessed at http://c-fund.us/mtw. The campaign, which expires Sept. 14, has a goal of $30,000. So far the campaign has raised $7,886.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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