French Broad Food Co-op begins planning expansion

ROOM TO GROW: The French Broad Food Co-op could break ground on expansion plans for its Biltmore Avenue site as soon as 2016. Photo by Rachel Ingram

A few days after learning that Katuah Grocery will close at the end of the month, French Broad Food Co-op member-owners convened a March 21 community meeting to discuss expansion ideas that include a parking deck on the north side of the property. Construction could begin as early as 2016.

“We’re [next] going to jump into more technical assistance, which will help us determine exact possibilities, from financing to engineering,” says Bobby Sullivan, FBFC’s general manager. The more than 100 meeting attendees offered such ideas as establishing an on-site urban garden and finding more ways to create a multi-use, sustainable, environmentally conscious facility.

“We have a lot of work to do to figure out what’s possible,” he says. But now, in its 40th year of operation, the co-op is poised for growth. “Asheville is a progressive town. It really … should have a thriving co-op,” says Sullivan.

Ready to grow

Sales and ownership rates have been steadily climbing at FBFC in recent years. Although the co-op experienced a dip in profits when Greenlife opened on Merrimon Avenue, says Sullivan, it has continued to thrive despite the construction of Katuah Market, Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, he adds.

“When Greenlife opened in 2004, it started the potential downfall of the co-op. In other words, we almost went out of business,” he says. “Then in 2010, things started to turn around. Whole Foods buying Greenlife really helped us.”

Now ownership is surging, Sullivan says, and “expansion has been a hot topic for the board since 2011.”

Data from the co-op’s 2014 annual report show growth every year. In 2007, FBFC had approximately 700 owners. Last year, the number had risen to nearly 1,800. The co-op’s sales percentages have also grown — by more than 3 percent every year since 2010.

“There’s clearly a renewed interest,” says Sullivan.

Sage Turner, finance manager of FBFC and project manager of the expansion, says the board has had time to consider a number of possibilities. While improved parking tops the list, the public meetings are a way “to hear what the community wants,” she says.

Community-based ideas

The March 21 session was facilitated by a third party and designed to encourage brainstorming, say FBFC staff and board members. Potential concerns up for discussion included parking, community engagement, leveraging assets and the challenges of staying in downtown Asheville.

For example, the co-op currently has about 70 parking spaces in four lots, says Sullivan.

“Parking is a big issue for us,” he says, “but the biggest issue is [that], with the way Asheville is growing, parking is only disappearing. Our parking lot is taxed by all the other businesses and … tourists who want to hang out downtown, so we now have to hire someone to watch our parking.”

That’s one obstacle the co-op faces in any expansion plan. “That’s something we absolutely have to address,” says Sullivan.

Meeting attendees also brought forward more than 20 other suggestions and posted them on the wall under the heading “Marketplace of ideas” — on-site, urban agriculture; affordable housing; greater selection of prepared foods; child care; and a high-rise, solar-powered parking deck.

“It’s what can happen, not what can’t happen,” says Joy Harmon, a co-op owner and 16-year Asheville resident. Pleased with the format of the meeting, she says she hopes the expansion will include an emphasis on community education.

“But the best part of this whole thing is that it brought together individuals from all over and got them talking,” Harmon says.

In facilitated discussions, many attendees prioritized sustainability and community engagement above building a standard parking garage.

“My areas of focus are on sustainability,” says Ken Huck, Asheville resident. He recently visited Hendersonville Community Co-op, which opened its new $4 million facility earlier this month. “We could have that — just like them,” Huck says.

Daav Wheeler, an FBFC board member, says he really likes the idea of increasing access to food. The role of co-ops is to provide natural food to communities, and the French Broad Food Co-op is excelling at it, Wheeler says. So now the co-op should work toward increasing accessibility to food, he says. “I think this is the next step for us.”

“The co-op has been a staple for a long time,” says Asheville native Rebecca Biggers, who owns Lola Salon and Gallery on the same block as the co-op. “I remember when it started out in the River Arts District when I was a little kid.”

She has been co-op owner longer than she can remember and fully supports the expansion, in whatever form it takes, she says.

“The first thing on my mind would be parking, because it’s such a limited commodity downtown. But outside of that, I think [expansion is] great,” says Lisa Payne, who manages Mamacita’s Taqueria across the street from the co-op.

Daisy Chavers owns a boutique and salon on Market Street behind the co-op. She says she would like to see increased access to FBFC from the Eagle/Market Street neighborhood, “even if it was just a walkway.” Chavers says she shops at the co-op regularly but is not an owner. “If I could cut through and get there faster, I’d probably go more.”

What’s next?

The FBFC board will take the top ideas and explore the feasibility of each one, says Turner. “We’ll take all the information from today and hand it over to our engineering group.”

Co-op owners will get an update at the annual meeting in June, she says.

“It’s likely that we’ll begin breaking ground by the end of 2016,” says Sullivan. The announcement drew applause during the meeting.

Owner Dave Jacobs says he’s ready for growth. “I think the co-op has the potential to show the city of Asheville and visitors to Asheville the benefit and preferability, even, of a cooperative structure,” he says.

“If we can meet Asheville where Asheville is already, and where Asheville is heading, then that’s a lot smarter than putting our heads in the sand and thinking that by not expanding that we’re going to somehow maintain it,” says Biggers.

“We need to meet the expansion with expansion.”

MORE INFO: frenchbroadfood.coop

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About Rachel Ingram
Rachel freelances for Mountain Xpress. She still can't believe she gets paid to meet new people and explore Western North Carolina on her days off from her "real" job as a direct care provider at a residential treatment center for youth (which she also thoroughly enjoys). To round it out, she also likes to drink wine, swim, backpack and cook, but not in that order.

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