Wednesday night’s exploratory food co-op meeting in East Falls took on a much more intimate feel than the similar 200-person meeting in Roxborough last month, but the level of neighborhood interest remained the same.
Squeezed into the conference room of the East Falls Development Corporation’s office on Midvale Avenue, about a dozen local residents listened intently to what Weavers Way board president David Woo had to say about starting up a neighborhood food co-op in East Falls.
He explained the basics of the co-op business model, went into detail about how cooperatives operate and shared an optimistic story on the Mt. Airy shop’s near death experience 10 years ago.
In 2002, Woo says, a bookkeeper mismanaged funds and used money from an escrow account, intended for a building purchase, for daily operating expenses. As a result, the cooperative nearly closed its doors but managed to work through the finances for the next few years and ended up with zero debt and in a position to expand.
He says that transformation proved to him that the co-op model works.
“It was sort of like, hey if we could do this, we could do anything,” said Woo. Weaver’s Way has now met with a myriad of neighborhood groups to offer expertise about how co-ops function — ranging from the almost opened Creekside Co-op in Elkins Park, to the Kensington Food Co-op which has been working on building membership for the past few years, to the gauging interest process in Manayunk and Roxborough.
A portion of Woo’s co-op membership at Weavers Way comes from residents of Manayunk, Roxborough and East Falls. He says he currently has 200 members from Roxborough, 100 from East Falls and 12 from Manayunk.
Woo suggested that interested members of the East Falls community conduct a neighborhood survey to test the desire for a cooperative grocery store, followed by a market study to prove to banks the initiative will be solvent enough to sustain. Woo says the economic recession could actually help the co-op get started.
“People in times of economic stress look toward having a little more control in their local economies,” he said pointing to Swarthmore Co-op, which began in the 30s, and Mariposa Food Coop, which opened as a buying club in the 70s. But Woo says the most important advice is not about raising the money, it’s about working together.
“[It will take] patience and tolerance, because its gonna be a diverse group of neighbors that are going to get together and they have to learn how to work together,” he added.
The idea to start an East Falls co-op was born in an online thread on the popular message board Philadelphia Speaks, indicated Gina Snyder, director of the East Falls Development Corporation. Since the initial idea was proposed in March, buzz has been spreading throughout the neighborhood.
For George Matysik, a new homeowner in East Falls, it’s the right time for the neighborhood to jump on this opportunity. A native of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Policy and Planning at Philabundance, Matysik was involved in the creation of a grocery store in Chester City. The East Falls co-op idea hit home when he realized there wasn’t a local place to buy a gallon of milk in his own neighborhood.
“What’s really difficult is when you really need that gallon of milk at 8 o’clock at night, where do you go?” he said, adding that East Falls has its share of abandoned storefronts and he sees a grocery store as a way to revitalize the riverfront corridor. Matysik says he currently shops at Whole Foods, Acme, and ShopRite.
“I think we saw tonight a lot of young energy, to be sure – it was a baby step, but a step in the right direction,” he added.
The group plans to meet over the summer and work towards larger community meetings in September.