360 State grocer may be co-op

Just over 10 years ago, the downtown area of Burlington, Vt., was left without a supermarket when its primary grocery provider went out of business. New Haven has been in a similar situation since late March when its only grocery store, the Shaw’s on Whalley Avenue, was shuttered.

In order to meet the Burlington community’s need for a grocery store, the city brought in a food co-op, which has done more sales per square foot than any other grocery store in the northeast region since 1999, said Bruce Becker ARC ’85 SOM ’85, president of Becker + Becker Associates, the developer behind 360 State St.

Now Becker + Becker is trying to bring Burlington’s model to the Elm city. Though Becker + Becker has been negotiating with national supermarkets to move into 360 State’s ground floor since mid-September, the developer is now leaning away from housing a large scale grocery chain in favor of a community-owned co-op. Such a business would be a hybrid between a conventional grocery store and an organic market, Becker said.

“There are many advantages that [a co-op grocer] would offer over a conventional grocery store,” Becker said. “Not least of which is the fact that we could have it open by the end of the year.”

A grocer needs to open at 360 State because one of the conditions under which the city granted Becker + Becker permission to develop the site was that the development include a supermarket or pay a fine of $250,000.

Board of Alderman President and Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield said the city got Becker to commit to bringing in a grocer and that the city had not specified what kind of grocer.

“I can’t say I expected a hybrid co-op,” he said.

Becker said the co-op model would be a good fit for New Haven because it has been profitable elsewhere and because many New Haven residents and workers are health-conscious. Food co-ops also tend to perform well in cities with robust health-care and education economies like New Haven, Becker said.

The 360 State co-op would be different from a conventional grocery store because it would be owned by the community not a corporation, Becker said. Local residents would have the opportunity to purchase shares in the organization and could receive a portion of any yearly profit the enterprise generates, he said.

One advantage of the food co-op, Becker said, is that it would offer more products from local food sources than a conventional grocer, while still offering name brand products.

“In the co-op option, there are a lot of advantages in knowing that we could tailor it to the community and have the economic impact of job creation and the support of local businesses.” Becker said, adding that he estimates the co-op will create 150 jobs, about the same number of employees the Shaw’s on Whalley Avenue, had.

Still, a major concern for both New Haven and Yale community members is whether the co-op’s prices will be comparable to those previously found at Shaw’s and other large-scale grocers.

“One of the great things about Shaw’s was that it was affordable,” said Abigail Lawlor ’11, a Dwight Hall member who is helping to find a replacement for Shaw’s.

But Becker said based on the research he and his firm have completed on food co-ops, the prices would be competitive with those at corporate grocers.

Regardless of whether the co-op’s prices are affordable for all New Haven’s citizens, Goldfield said city officials never expected the 360 State grocer to cater to the entire city.

Goldfield added that he always assumed the grocer that would come into 360 State would be higher end and wouldn’t serve the same function as Shaw’s because the grocer in 360 State “would appeal to people could afford to pay $5.99 a pound for argula.”

Another downside to the co-op is that if it becomes a reality, Becker + Becker needs to invest in the infrastructure required such as refrigerating and storage facilities, Becker said. Previously, Becker + Becker was only responsible for “providing a shell” of space that a grocery chain would fill according to its own requirements and protocol, he said. For now, Becker said he and his associates are developing a business model to present to the company that is financing the project in the next two to three weeks that outlines the economic benefits of the co-op, how much more money would be needed to host it and how his company will convince the local community to invest in the venture.

Becker said he will be able to disclose whether the project’s financier approves the co-op as 360 State’s grocery store in a month.

The fact a food co-op may be coming to 360 State St. should not effect the community’s ability for a replacement to be found for the Shaw’s lot on Whalley Avenue, said Sheila Masterson, executive director of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District, which is trying to find a grocer for the Shaw’s lot.

She said the market for a grocery store in New Haven is large enough to sustain both a full-scale chain in the Dwight Place Lot that housed Shaw’s and a co-op at 360 State Street.

Becker said evidence from Hanover, N.H., where there are four different co-ops operating profitably, suggests a food co-op and grocery chain could co-exist in New Haven. He added that the 57,000 square feet of space Shaw’s once operated in is so large that it is “perfect” for an independent chain.

“I think its in the best interest of everyone, Shaw’s included, that there be a full scale grocer taking over that entire space and operating as a full scale supermarket.” Masterson said.

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