|From #107, July-August 2003|
Tidal Creek Triples Its SizeB Y S A L L Y C O B B A N D H O P E S U T T O N
Tidal Creek Food Co-op began, like many other food co-ops back in the 1970s, with a bit of cooperation and a great deal of idealism. A small buying club in the then-small-town of Wilmington, North Carolina began placing orders with Tree of Life. Eventually the buying club bought out the owner of a tiny natural food store and named the store for its location near one of the area's tidal creeks. Democratic control and ownership became part of the picture, and Tidal Creek Foods began functioning more like a true cooperative.
The next phase of Tidal Creek's history is a familiar one to many other co-ops as well. Years passed as a core group of members maintained their access to low cost foods by earning huge discounts for working in the store, keeping profits and therefore capital funds low. The small town of Wilmington experienced tremendous growth as the co-op struggled with its own growth process. The co-op was "open to the public" but its small size, unconventional offerings, and atmosphere meant that only the truly committed shopped and became members. Nevertheless, sales and memberships both grew slowly, and the co-op expanded, staying in its most recent home, an old house with 1,340 square feet of retail, for 11 years.
During these years there were many growing pains and ongoing differences about the direction and mission of the co-op. After years of debate and interrupted planning, the early plans reached fruition only after the co-op hired a general manager with a more ambitious commitment to moving Tidal Creek into the Wilmington business forefront.
Defining and redefining itself over the years, the co-op struggled with maintaining a sense of community and comfort while moving toward more professional business operations and a storefront presence more widely acceptable to the general public. Tidal Creek's recent expansion has been undertaken with this combination of heartfelt idealism and careful professionalism always at its center. Members have been included in the process during every step through regular events and publications. The new store will serve current members well while opening the doors wide to a new audience of shoppers-dare we say members-who will no longer feel too intimidated to shop at the co-op.
Tripling retail space
On the business end of the story, the expansion itself went fairly smoothly. We sought a space that was approximately three times the old store size. But due to the high cost of property near the coast and the co-op's lack of equity, purchasing was out of the question. Terms were negotiated with a development company for a new building for the co-op to lease as the anchor tenant.
The lease negotiations were lengthy and difficult. But working with the landlord and developer as a single entity simplified many aspects of the project, especially since the co-op could only afford a single person to act as both the daily store manager and the expansion project manager. The entire building construction, including organizing all subcontractors and labor, was the developer's responsibility, while the co-op's general manager oversaw all decisions and maintained close communication throughout the process. From ground breaking to opening day took eleven months. The total project budget of approximately $700,000 was negotiated before construction began, including a cap on total costs. The project came in around $10,000 under budget. The co-op had $150,000 in equity to put toward the project, another $80,000 came from member loans, and $145,000 came from the developer. The final $235,000 came from a bank loan that was obtained with the assistance of the other Southeast Cooperative Grocers Association members in an innovative loan securing plan. (More on SECGA, page 22.) Other portions of the budget were covered through free product and extended terms.
The happy member faces and positive comments of the first days of shopping in the new store predict the successful preservation of the co-op's prized sense of belonging, community, and comfort. Tidal Creek Co-op has made a splendid transition and is thriving, serving the current membership while reaching out to the wider community to gain new members. They now enjoy shopping in a store that feels like a regular grocery store, complete with full-sized aisles and carts, buying bulk rice or other products at great prices, and bumping into several friends along the way.
Recently the articles of incorporation were amended so that the co-op is now legally a cooperative corporation. Every day brings new discussion about what it means to be a cooperative and about opportunities to live out the cooperative principles more fully.
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