When Stoughton's Main Street Market closed last June after 22 years, town residents didn't take the news lying down. "I heard from people all over the city after we lost the store," says Stoughton Mayor Helen Johnson. "More people called on this issue than any other." Left with only one supermarket and hungry for more local shopping choices, citizens formed a group to explore the possibility of opening a cooperative grocery.
Over 35 members strong, the Yahara River Cooperative Grocery now meets every other week and has accomplished a lot in its short life: It has formulated a vision, written a mission statement and a grant proposal, and surveyed residents. And just last month, the co-op project was recommended by the Dane County Agricultural Advisory Council to receive a $41,000 Agricultural Enterprise Grant, as part of a program that promotes local farmers and producers.
"We have seen a real groundswell of support for the idea of a co-op," says Eric Borchardt, chair of Yahara River's marketing committee. "I think it just shows that people are really dissatisfied with the choices we have in Stoughton."
The group also has the backing of the Willy Street Co-op, which has pledged to help the fledgling grocery however it can, according to Willy Street's cooperative services manager Lynn Olson. "That's what being part of a cooperative means," she says, citing administrative and financial support Willy Street has given the Mifflin Street Co-op, whose future is uncertain. (Members may decide to close down the cooperative in a vote scheduled for Nov. 20.)
In August, Olsen and Anne Reynolds of the UW-Madison's Center for Cooperatives met with Stoughton community members to discuss the possibilities of a member-owned store. "Residents indicated that they want the store to carry a full line of groceries, not just organic products," says Mayor Johnson. Caroline Werner, founder and co-chair of the Yahara River group, sees the store branching out into nutritional supplements as well.
As they move ahead with the business plan, members of the group are surveying Stoughton residents to learn what they want in a grocery store. The results of the survey won't be released until a community meeting in mid-November, but Borchardt has already noted the surprising number of people currently driving to Madison for food. "That's a long way to go to pick up a few things for dinner," he says. "The market is clearly there, particularly on the east side of town, where many seniors live."
Borchardt's view is confirmed by a market study the Stoughton City Council sponsored this summer, which found that the east side could indeed support an independent grocery. Most of the retail in Stoughton is currently on the west side, closer to Madison.
The Yahara River Cooperative Grocery continues to seek more community input and more volunteers. "A co-op is the perfect model for a community-minded town like Stoughton," says Borchardt. "It is exciting to see so many people coming together to make this store their own."