PHOTO: co-op

AMONG meaningful local initiatives that promise to improve people’s lives, the planned Fredericksburg Food Co-op is taking its place atop the list. Having sprouted from a 2015 conversation among friends interested in bringing a locally controlled, locally stocked grocery store to the area, the idea is nearing physical reality as the group sets its sights on an actual bricks-and-mortar location.

This has been a classic tale of creating something from nothing. And it’s all due to the work of a handful of committed residents who have rallied a remarkable show of community support.

In just four years, the co-op has signed up 1,099 members as of the end of May, each tendering a one-time $200 lifetime membership fee per individual or family. A 1,000-member goal was set as the minimum number before a building to house the co-op could be leased.

Now, the organization is getting down to the real nitty-gritty. It has signed an agreement to show its interest in what is currently the Kabul Mart, located in the Lee Plaza shopping center at Princess Anne and Charles streets. Kabul Mart is a specialty food market that’s looking for smaller quarters for its operation.

The agreement sets a June 17 deadline for the co-op to decide whether it wants to occupy the building. Having already secured $1.1 million in investment loans from its membership, the co-op needs another $500,000 in voluntary loans from its members—the capital needed to proceed with configuring the building for its use.

Last week, the Fredericksburg City Council approved an annual performance grant to the co-op offered by Fredericksburg Economic Development Authority. The grant will be equivalent to 100 percent of the local sales taxes that the city would collect from the co-op for each of its first five years, decreasing to 50 percent in years five through 10.

To be eligible for the grant, the co-op must have leased a site of at least 9,000 square feet within Fredericksburg, invested at least $500,000 in the store, and opened it by the end of 2020.

Bill Freehling, director of the city’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism, described the EDA grant as an “investment that the city would be making for this new asset for the city.”

But it is really even more than that.

While the grant is welcome assistance as the nascent co-op looks to establish itself as a going concern in the Fredericksburg area, the economic impact could be felt beyond the co-op itself. If the co-op does lease the Lee Plaza property, it could serve as a shot in the arm for an economically challenged area of the city, turning the plaza and surrounding area into a shopping and business destination that could generate new private investment.

As the co-op group takes care of business, it’s important to remember the righteous motivation that got the idea going in the first place: To provide a year-round venue for local farmers and vendors to make their goods readily available to primarily local buyers. With such a permanent source for fresh, local goods, more people would be encouraged to consume healthier foods that don’t need to be trucked in from distant locations. That means less fuel used and fewer emissions fouling the air.

The co-op will also help local consumers maintain the April-through-October fresh food habit that the area’s wonderful farmers markets have helped instill for years.

As founding member Rich Larochelle said recently, the dream “is now within reach.” And after just four years, it’s pretty amazing.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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