Building Controversy in Bozeman

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From #105, March-April 2003

Building Controversy in Bozeman

B Y   K E L L Y   W I S E M A N

Not even eleven long months of living with the turmoil of construction every day could prepare us for the sight of our store when we walked in that morning in August. We were exhausted, having worked until four in the morning with a crew of sixty. Our small army of the night had performed a minor miracle. All of the shelves in the store had been emptied and shoved out of the way. All of the deli kitchens and produce areas were swathed in giant sheets of plastic. The parking lot was half full of miscellaneous equipment, dead cabinetry, and shelving parts. From the outside it looked like a disaster area. Inside was far worse.

By 7:30 a.m. there were already two guys with chainsaws taking out our old bathrooms.

A jackhammer was running somewhere, as were two massive, water-lubricated concrete saws cutting a maze of new sewer cuts through the floor of the old store. A backhoe followed, right down the old grocery aisle, scooping out the trenches. Guys in hard hats were everywhere, shoveling out the sludge, bashing out cinderblock walls, hauling rubble. It looked like someone had set off a smoke bomb in the store, but not before taking a fire hose and spraying mud in ugly swaths all over the walls and ceiling. In the middle of this screeching, howling mayhem it was hard to find solace in our timeline, knowing that we were going to have to reopen for shopping in four days.

Rats in a maze

Our decision to expand our store was driven by a serious surge in sales volume. In 1999 we surpassed the $900 sales/sq. ft. mark, and our four check stands and limited aisle width couldn’t handle more growth. Bozeman is the hub of the fastest growing area in Montana, so stasis was viewed as potential suicide. As one board member put it, "if we don’t build it, someone else will."

We moved to this Main Street location in 1992 and began buying the half square block in 1995. It’s the busiest street in town, across from Safeway and close to Montana State University. Instead of looking for another location in 1999, we chose to add a two-story structure to the side of our old, cinder block building. We knew it would be difficult to keep the store open throughout the process, and we knew it would be expensive. But the location was just too good, and the membership made it clear that an expansion was preferable to a relocation.

Making a plan

The co-op board of directors chose young, local architects rather than going with a big firm from out of state. We traded off deep experience for energy and excitement. The co-op was the only client of these architects through the first nine months of the project, which gave us their undivided attention to even the smallest concern or detail. We could call them in the morning with a design change request and have it delivered, to scale, that afternoon.

The board brought in the membership through a series of design meetings conducted by the architect and management. We made long lists of what the members wanted and didn’t want and spent long hours distilling it down to what we viewed as most realistic, affordable, and important to the most members.

Finally, the board appointed a building committee composed of one director, a couple of staff members, artists, a volunteer, and management. This committee spent a few months working closely with the architects until an overall building design consensus was reached and the board approved.

No one grasped how controversial our design would become. To us it looked kind of like a big old western barn, a nice functional reflection of our agricultural heritage in Montana and our mission. Sure, it was big, as tall as allowed under the city zone code, but that was a statement of sorts, too. Whether they liked us or not, everyone in town would know where to find the co-op.

Politics

In order to build the large addition as planned, several deviations to the city zone code were needed, most controversial of which was encroaching to within two feet of the Main Street sidewalk. The co-op worked closely with city planners and made the argument that downtown areas need to be flexible about urban infill. A great cheer arose from the packed room in city hall when the commissioners agreed, unanimously.

The co-op came under fire when the local paper, in a rather snippy editorial, pointed out that all five commissioners were members. Being accused of bribing city officials by the editors of the only newspaper in a small town could be seen as detrimental. Instead it became, in a weird way, great publicity, motivating our members to defend the project and increasing their loyalty to what was obviously a risky and controversial project. So we started an aggressive member loan drive, offering very fat interest (8%) for big loans. And the money started pouring in.

Nothing will spark a member loan drive like strong community relations, a great building plan, high interest rates, and the sudden dive of the stock market into the toilet. Fortunately, we had all four.

Money, honey

Nothing will spark a member loan drive like strong community relations, a great building plan, high interest rates, and the sudden dive of the stock market into the toilet. Fortunately, we had all four. We offered loans in three tiers: 5.5% interest for loans ranging from $500 to $1,000; 7.0% for $1,000 to $5,000; and a whopping 8.0% for over $5,000. The decision to go with such high rates was made far in advance, when we registered the program with the state of Montana and before stocks tumbled. It turns out that the decision was fortuitous; the loan drive got off to a roaring start and never faltered.

With a goal of $450,000, we took in $900,000. This enabled us to make an unplanned move in the middle of the finance dance: we paid off the mortgage on our property. Of course, the co-op quickly borrowed a pile of cash on the following Monday, but we were proud to point out that we did own the property outright for a full weekend.

The strong support from members gave us a cakewalk with the local commercial bank, generally not known for sporting party hats. We secured a loan of an additional $1.5 million, bringing the total project budget, including some cash that we had miraculously stashed away, to $2.2 million.

  

Mayhem

Nothing had prepared our members for what came next. We tore a hole in the wall to create a new entrance, thus destroying our very popular seating area. It got worse when we removed about a third of the shelves and reset the store with less product, tiny turning lanes, and four foot aisles. This enabled the workers to build temporary, insulated, load-bearing walls four feet inside our previous walls, making a box within a box. Then they brought in a couple of giant backhoes and pulled down the whole length of two of our exterior walls.

Now the co-op operated in a much smaller footprint, with towering plywood walls and no windows. We stayed open throughout, and decided to include our members by posting "Hardhat Happenings" every week, a detailed look at the construction process and what to expect. There were regular tours of the construction site for staff and working members. We even cut a hole for a window at the entrance to give a better members a look into the construction area.

Nothing grabbed attention quite like the shape of the building itself. As the second story and then the clear story went up, residents driving by began to realize that we were building a really big, barn-like building. People in town began talking about it.

But all was certainly not rosy. Probably the most overlooked aspect of a stressful, detailed, and complicated expansion is the effect it will have on staff working long shifts. We didn’t close until much later in the project, for one four-day stint and then another for a week. We regret not choosing to better protect our staff by closing, without notice, before the dust or screeching or vibrations or stench reached a nasty climax.

The fact that the co-op did remain open thrilled the membership, however. Many commented that they were surprised how little their shopping was interrupted. As managers we met weekly, in a formal way, with the general contractor and the architect. More important was our presence on-site every day, asking pointed questions about what to expect. This is why we chose a smaller, local commercial construction company with plenty of experience doing retail remodels. They asked first, valued our opinion, and didn’t hesitate to make jokes at our expense. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Design by committee

The warnings came early and often: "hire consultants and let them design the store." As with most strong advice that we receive from the world of convention, we tossed it out immediately. After all, the whole notion of the co-op is a group effort, and getting it to the point of such a big project took a lot of people working together. So we decided to not only design by committee, but to do it by consensus. Talk about throwbacks.

Probably the most overlooked aspect of a stressful, detailed, and complicated expansion is the effect it will have on staff working long shifts.

The all-hallowed design team grew out of our old building committee. A core group had worked together, with our architect, to come up with what we think is a very fine building. So, we took the same committee, added a few art-minded staffers and board members, and all seven members committed to meeting every week to make final decisions about every single aspect of design.

The team worked so well together that the consensus process actually birthed itself. We had no intention of formalizing our process but instead just began working in what we viewed as the most courteous and inclusive way. We were also careful not to allow disruptive or pushy members onto the team. We rejected the notion that all interested members have a "right" to be deeply involved in decision making.

Everything was decided by the group: overall floor plan, interior and exterior paint, bathroom tiles and stall doors, floor colors and patterns, artwork, countertop materials, signage. And it worked beautifully. As a matter of fact, we have kept the team together to help improve merchandising in the store now that the project is done.

Talk of the town

Our new, large building had the good fortune of attracting the angry wrath of the right-wing haters of city government and planning. As soon as we tacked on the used siding (which a member found on a couple of local barns) the letters to the editor of the local paper started pouring in. We were accused once again of bribing the left-leaning commission (how else could we ever have gotten such a big ugly thing passed?), of being Korean-style communists (literally), and of constructing a fish cannery. The AM radio talk show guy fed the fire, as did local TV coverage. Co-op members fired back with strong letters of support for alternative buildings. The mayor wrote a long editorial in support of our project. It was all over town.

Finally, the furor was killed by a front page article in which we took the position of thanking everyone who attacked our project for saving us at least $3,000 in advertising expenses. We had expected sales to increase about 25 percent after the project. Instead, we came in far below budget on advertising, while sales increased 45 percent.

Lucky–and lessons

Fortune smiled on our co-op in many ways during this ordeal. A wintertime construction project, in Montana, was only delayed a few weeks because of the weather. Our members supported us and during the construction period gave us 3 percent growth in sales over the previous year. Stocks tanked, loans poured in. We grabbed far more headlines than we anticipated. Our staff proved even more professional and dedicated than we would have hoped. And now we have a big, not-so-shiny Korean-style fish cannery in which to work. Talk about good fortune.

We still have some problems with our heating system and some other aspects of the engineers’ work. Instead of trusting engineers to do all the work, we wish we had gone with the design/build model, in which the general contractor brings in the subs (electricians, plumbers, etc.) and they critique the engineers’ plans before final approval.

This sends the engineers back to the drawing board repeatedly until the people who will do the actual installation agree with where the pipes, conduit, fixtures, and outlets will go. It costs more up front, but we think it would probably have saved us money and hassle in the long run.

There are a lot of aspects about the building that could be better, which also happens to be true of life. Nothing is perfect, and we did plenty of things wrong. But the best lesson, and what we did right, was trusting our staff and working members to carry a very heavy load and pull this crazy thing through. We kept them very informed, every step of the way, and they returned the favor by never, not once, letting us down. More than anything else, this makes every square foot of the place feel like our building.

 

Kelly Wiseman is general manager at Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Montana ([email protected]).

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See other articles from this issue: #105 March - April - 2003