Vancouver Food Co-op sees refreshed energy

Leader expresses new optimism

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter




Previously: Vancouver Food Co-op members considered closing their Main Street storefront but decided to continue after more volunteers pledged to help.

What’s new: Claire Ghormley, who has experience at several downtown businesses, has stepped into a temporary job as store manager.

What’s next: Board members will take a postponed vote on dissolving the business at 6 p.m. Tuesday at YWCA Clark County, 3609 Main St.

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Vancouver Food Cooperative

The Vancouver Food Cooperative will hold a Nov. 19 follow-up meeting to conclude some critical housekeeping: does the nonprofit, member-driven corporation have a future?

The co-op's previous board of directors doubted it. Earlier this year, it decided to turn down an emergency loan of $20,000 because of a strong sense that the organization needed more than money. What it really needed was a huge infusion of dedicated volunteerism. Without that, the board decided, it was time to close.

The question of corporate dissolution was discussed and delayed, however, at an Oct. 17 meeting that resulted in more passionate volunteerism than board president Kirk Wright said he has seen in too long.

"The meeting really did generate a lot of energy," Wright said. "I am feeling better about all this than I have in months. There's nothing like a crisis to bring people together."

Wright said two board members resigned in the wake of the Oct. 17 meeting, but more have already joined. So far, the new board contains several prominent local names in business, political, neighborhood and "foodie" circles -- including Eileen Cowen, former director of the now-defunct Urban Growers Market and a Hough Neighborhood Association leader; Temple Lentz, a political blogger and newly elected county freeholder; Port of Vancouver Commissioner Brian Wolfe; Tom Miewald, a returning board member and officer; Caleb Freeman, Thomas Lindsley and Wright. Wright said the organization's bylaws allow it to operate with as few as three members, and allow a too-small board to appoint new members without a vote of the larger membership.

The new group is full of "energy and strong community connections," Wright said. More interviews are underway to continue to build the board, Wright said. Also, a new treasurer, Walt Griffith, has been appointed, and there's a new volunteer team leader whose job will be to put all that new enthusiasm effectively to work.

"A number of volunteers are stepping into key positions. That is very rewarding," said Wright, who previously had said that "middle-management" volunteers were needed most desperately of all.

Setting the stage

The Oct. 17 meeting also led to the hiring of a temporary co-op store manager, Claire Ghormley. Ghormley, 29, is a veteran of several downtown restaurant and bar startups, including Mon Ami Cafe, Je T'aime Bakery and the new Low Bar on Washington Street.

"I enjoy doing startups" — which is almost what this is, she said Tuesday

morning during a pause in her new duties. She said she plans to redesign the interior of the place to make it more appealing and to direct foot traffic toward the store's fresh produce area, which will also get a big boost.

Mainly, she said, she wants to marshal all the great volunteer energy that's shown up lately, and market the co-op to a community that still doesn't know much about it. For example, she said, the community is always unclear that the store at 1002 Main St., while member-owned and operated, is open to the public.

"It's never going to be your one-stop shopping for everything. It's not Safeway," she said. "But the prices are great."

People have warned her that this turnaround job will be tough, she said -- and that challenge is a large part of what appealed to her. "I enjoy being the devil's advocate. This is right up my alley," she said.

Ghormley added that her job tenure will definitely be temporary because she is getting married and planning to take off time next spring. She wants to set the stage for the next manager to have an easier time of it than the last one did, she said.

Pre-wrapped Burgerville sandwiches have gone away, she said, but locally crafted beer and wine will soon be on store shelves.

New ideas

The Oct. 17 meeting voted to delay the question of dissolution until a follow-up meeting. That's now scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at the YWCA, 3609 Main St. Wright said the many complaints that members brought forward last time, about the lack of a current business plan and other financial information, will be addressed in time for the meeting.

Financial statements and bylaws were sent out to the co-op's electronic mailing list Tuesday; a draft business plan is due to follow. The financial statements show that the co-op has lost nearly $100,000 since 2007.

Wright said the co-op has operated according to several board-adopted business plans over the past several years, but in August the board didn't approve the latest plan. A split board voted to endorse dissolution instead.

But assuming that the membership of the apparently resurgent co-op rejects dissolution, Wright said, another follow-up meeting will also be scheduled. That will be a broader, facilitated gathering where the new board can hear members' ideas about the overall direction of the co-op, he said. That meeting has not yet been scheduled and Wright said he's not sure if it would be for members only or open to the public, as well.

Wright said publicity around the co-op's recent struggles and solutions have "allowed us to raise our stature and recover some credibility."