Food co-op scrambles for money, new home
The Dandelion Market, Carbondale’s food co-op, is searching for a new home after news that its lease won’t be renewed, and at the same time it faces calls to reorganize amid revelations that the organization is again deep in the red.
Bills went unpaid for the fourth quarter of 2016, and the co-op’s books are under review.
If the co-op can’t find a home by July 1, it may have to become a buyer’s club as it was in the beginning, said Katrina Byars, who became the co-op’s general manager at the start of last summer.
In the middle of its search for a new home, the co-op confronted, during a Wednesday evening meeting, a proposal to dissolve the board of directors, restructure it as a nonprofit and amend the bylaws. The meeting was called regarding a petition put forward by co-op member Bill Shepard.
Despite Shepard’s petition, most of the members who spoke out at Wednesday’s meeting said the restructuring would be a major undertaking that shouldn’t happen while the co-op is trying to find a new location.
The board, which is supposed to have nine members, has been lately operating with only three: Emily White as chair, Felicia Trevor as vice chair and Erica Sparhawk as treasurer and secretary.
At the meeting Wednesday, White pleaded for help from the membership, saying the board especially needs people with business and grant writing experience. “We’re here today because we care,” she said.
White later added that the only reason she is the chair is because she’s the only one who had been on the board for more than a year, which is a requirement of that position. White said she would be fine with no longer being the chair, or no longer being on the board for that matter. “I have no desire to lead, honestly.”
Also, Sparhawk will eventually have to leave the board to make time for her new role, having been appointed to the Carbondale Board of Trustees. She said Thursday that she’s committed to finding more board members for the co-op before she goes, and added that she’ll likely stay on for another month or two.
The vacancies on the board are central to the co-op’s stall in progress, but filling the board also isn’t going to solve all its problems, said Amy Kimberly, who suggested forming stakeholder groups that would separately tackle bringing the business into the black and finding a new location. At the end of the meeting, members were signing up for these groups.
A major hurdle for the co-op comes from inaccuracy in its financial statements. Year-end statements show the co-op’s total income for 2016 was about $612,000 with an overhead of about $188,000. In addition, the cost of goods was shown to be $451,000, but this number is likely inaccurate due to bills not being entered, said Sparhawk.
Somehow, the co-op’s invoices stopped being paid in October and weren’t paid in November or December.
Sparhawk said the co-op’s former bookkeeper was responsible for this. Since then, the organization brought in an outside accountant to review the co-op’s books. Sparhawk said that once the market’s new bookkeeper is caught up, the board will ask the accountant to do a more complete review to make sure everything is accurate moving forward.
This co-op’s deteriorating financial condition eventually became obvious, and concern mounted among the membership over dwindling inventory on the shelves.
Byars said it was a “frustration that this is an almost identical situation as I came into” last year. “I want to apologize that I didn’t see what was happening, and then that I didn’t know how to convey that.”
She said the co-op had to stop buying products when it began aggressively paying back the vendors that had gone unpaid for months.
The co-op is also getting a new accounting system and point-of-sale system, whereas in the past the co-op has recorded all its accounting with paper and pencil, said Byars.
The current co-op location is among several downtown properties thought to be owned through LLCs by Bren Simon, widow of shopping mall tycoon Melvin Simon.
Rumors have circulated about plans for the property leading to the co-op getting the boot. But town officials said Thursday they didn’t have any word about what the property’s future might hold.
Byars said the co-op is looking at four different for-sale properties, all in the downtown core and one rental on Colorado 133.
Each of the for-sale properties ranges from about $850,000 to more than $1 million.
The property at 689 Main St., listed for about $1.6 million, tops the wish list, though not everyone is convinced that this is a realistic option.
The co-op isn’t going to be able to outright buy a new building, so Byars and the board are looking into partnering with other local organizations, soliciting investors and pursuing financing options like rural economic development grants and loans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There might be an opportunity to go into a new building with another business, such as Nieslanik Beef, which Byars and Sparhawk said is interested in such an arrangement.
“Even though we’re facing a lot of challenges right now, there is also a lot of opportunity that comes with change,” said Sparhawk. “If we can get the wider community, as well as the membership, to participate, we could really make something amazing happen with these partnerships and potential properties.”
Sparhawk said Thursday that she didn’t believe the co-op had received any signatures on Shepard’s petition.
Regardless of the results of Shepard’s petition, the co-op board has a regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday at the Third Street Center.
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Diane Mitsch Bush was defeated by incumbent Scott Tipton in 2018 for the 3rd Congressional District seat. Mitsch Bush is running again as the Democratic candidate but this time against Republican political newcomer Lauren Boebert.