Brattleboro Co-op plans affordable housing

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(Host) The "Brattleboro Food Co-op" and the "Windham Housing Trust" hope to construct a new downtown building that will house the co-op and affordable apartments. 

This month, the project was given $875,000 in state and federal money.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The deli counter at the Brattleboro Food Co-op can get pretty jammed around meal times.

The glass counter with its displays of colorful local food entrees, long ago outgrew the kitchen.

The space was designed a dozen years ago to handle about $17,000 worth of business a week. It’s now doing $40,000.

(Gyori) "It’s an art not to slam into somebody with a tray of sizzling roasted tofu. So far, nothing has happened, but it’s very hard to work in those tight circumstances."

(Keese) Co-op manager Alex Gyori says there are other problems with the building.

It’s a former supermarket in a small 1950’s style shopping plaza set back from Brattleboro’s urban-looking Main Street.

After years of leasing, the co-op bought the plaza five years ago.

Since then, Gyori says, the co-op board has listened to shareholders, town agencies and all manner of experts on how to make the most of the property.

One suggestion was to build a new building, not set back like the current co-op but right on Main Street.

(Gyori) "We’re looking at it and we say, ‘OK, this is like a 100 year opportunity for our town to use its space better.’ … You look at the old photographs of what used to be in our town and that whole strip from Whetstone Brook right up was, you know, three or four story buildings in the style that the town had.”

(Keese) With annual sales of over $16 million, and a membership of almost 5,000, the Co-op is one of Brattleboro’s major businesses.

But however members might like the notion of restoring the historic streetscape, the business didn’t need four stories for its own use.

(Snow) "And there was also some sentiment that we needed affordable housing and that that might be a great combination."

(Keese) Connie Snow is the director of the Windham Housing Trust. The co-op did a feasibility study that showed it couldn’t afford to develop housing and a retail store.

The Housing Trust has access to lots of mechanisms for financing affordable housing.

(Snow) "And so they approached us and asked if we’d be interested and, of course, we immediately said, `Yes.’"

(Keese) As plans stand now, the Co-op will own the building’s two lower floors. The Housing Trust will own and operate the rental units on the top two floors.

The Co-op is confident it can put the financing together for its part of the $13 million project.

Co-op Manager Alex Gyori says even in these tough times, the co-op’s revenues continue to grow, though not as fast as before the economic downturn.

In fact things appear to be going well for all the region’s natural food co-ops.

Clem Nilan manages City Market in Burlington, another co-op that’s growing.

(Nilan) "I don’t think anybody’s come unscathed through the recession, but co-ops have come through it much stronger. I think that people trust that these stores are – well, they’re owned by members, they’re owned by people in the community and so any profits stay in the community and I think that makes a difference."

(Keese) The Brattleboro Co-op hopes to break ground on its new building next spring.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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