The Swarthmore Co-op started in a garage in 1937, founded by local residents in search of less expensive and fresher food. The membership fee was $5, which remained in effect until December 2002. The co-op moved into its original store in 1939, where it operated until October 12, 2004. In its small eastern Pennsylvania town, home of Swarthmore College, the co-op has always been a store for the local community, a place where anyone can shop and anyone can join.
Late in 1998 two separate and serendipitous things occurred. One was that the co-op board of directors had a structural engineer do a study of the long-term viability of our old building. The conclusion was that it would take up to $1.5 million just to shore up the foundation and roof, without doing anything for the aging retail area. The board started looking for a new location, but in our small town there was no place to go.
At the same time the Borough was completing a business district strategic plan. For that they received federal and state grant money to do a streetscape project as well as funding to buy the property next to the co-op in order to put a street through to improve parking and traffic flow.
The co-op saw this as a great opportunity, so we went to the Borough and proposed that the co-op buy the adjacent property and build a brand-new, expanded store there. The Borough would buy our property and then put the street in that location after the new store opened. The Borough saw that as the classic win-win solution and agreed to the plan.
As the board started looking at designs and construction estimates, we realized that we were taking on a $2 million project for a store that would double the retail space to over 6,000 square feet. Realizing that we needed a plan to raise significant funds, we called on Bill Gessner of Cooperative Development Services and worked with the National Cooperative Bank (NCB). We raised the membership fee to $300 and opened a member loan program with the intent of revitalizing our cooperative values and having the shoppers view it as a long-term investment in the community. They results were spectacular, with over 720 members and 75 member loans that totaled over $640,000, including $50,000 from Swarthmore College. With that “equity” we were able to get a construction loan from our local bank and a long-term loan from NCB.
On October 12, 2004, we closed the doors of the old store for good. Over 70 members helped move the stock into the new store, and we opened on October 14. Over 200 members attended the ribbon cutting event. The store has been the biggest thing to happen in town in decades!
While we have only been in operation for a few weeks, the members have been thrilled with the new store. The additional space allowed us to greatly add to our organic and natural products, as well as to work with many local farmers and producers. We also added a full-service kitchen facility for creating prepared food and take-home meals.
Next spring, when the new street is in the place of the old co-op and the streetscape project is complete for the entire business district, the town will be an entirely new and vibrant place with the new co-op as the centerpiece! It’s a great example of how positive things can happen when the entire community can focus on the same goal, and it seems a co-op by its very nature is a great way to do this.
*** Jack Cavanaugh is general manager at Swarthmore Co-op ([email protected]).