Eviction looms for West Asheville co-op

The cooperatively owned Haywood Road Market is part of a small group of businesses that was part of West Asheville’s resurgence several years ago. But the organic corner grocery has a history of financial struggles and now may have to leave its location in West Asheville’s Bledsoe Building.

At the end of March, the market received an eviction notice from the building’s owners, the West Asheville Development group, according to April DeLac, president of the co-op board. She says that the co-op has had trouble keeping up with its rent, which has recently increased along with the rents of other spaces in the building.

The market didn’t meet its rent deadline for February, “but that was probably just the straw breaking the camel’s back,” DeLac says. “We’ve been a struggling co-op for a long time. There’s been financial issues almost the entire history.”

Additionally, low revenues have meant past-due payments to vendors, leading to empty shelves that drive down sales.

The financial problems include not only late rent payments but also a series of personal and business loans extended over the years to try to help the market reach a sustainable level. And the co-op lacks the volume-buying power larger stores like EarthFare has to keep costs low, says WAD partner and West End Bakery co-owner Krista Stearns.

“This has been years in coming,” Stearns says. “And it was a very hard decision to make.”

Stearns’ husband, Lewis Lankford, also a WAD partner, says that the co-op’s poor payment history led to the decision not to renew the lease in August 2008, switching to a month-to-month status, and eventually to the eviction notice.

But Lankford, himself a founding board member of the co-op, said that slim pickings in the store and declining business also gave a dim forecast of the market’s future.

“The decision was reinforced by going in and seeing the condition of the store,” he said. “It didn’t have the feel of anything except something that was going away.”

DeLac agrees that a rethinking is in order. “How the store exists today, it’s not worth keeping in business,” she says. “But there is a group of people who think it’s worth reinventing ourselves.”

Meanwhile, the co-op board has been dispelling reports that the organization is tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Taxes, payrolls and liability are all up-to-date, and the total rent still owed comes to $3,800, according to Sage Turner, who resigned as general manager in December in an effort to cut costs.

Co-op supporters are not giving up hope that something can be done to save the market, at least in some form, and are turning back to their community-owned roots for answers.

“Our owners must come together and decide the fate of this co-op: do we move? do we close? do we morph into something new?” reads a message disseminated through local blogs and e-mails.

To figure out the next step, the co-op will hold a member’s meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, at the Bledsoe Building. The public is invited.

Substantial financial issues will come into play if the co-op decides to set up shop elsewhere. “To get where we might want to go is going to take some money,” DeLac says. She adds that news of the eviction already has some property owners coming forward with ideas.

“We have some good leads,” she says. “Sources have contacted us saying, ‘We love the co-op.’” But the decision to relocate and continue on with the market will depend, she says, on community support. “We just don’t want to be another statistic in this economy.”

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