Citizens Co-op, RIP

by Joe Courter

In a town with a history of having a food co-op that went out of business many years earlier (the Hogtown Granary), there were a lot of people who were willing to invest in another one.

The motivators of the Citizens Co-op had a plan which sounded good on paper. They would raise the capital needed to start the store from the community, and then, once the Co-op was open, those very same investors would shop there and form a solid base of income from which the Co-op could grow. It does seem like a viable plan.

Sadly, for a whole lot of reasons, it wasn’t, and it produces a whole list of what-not-to-dos instead, as well as adverse circumstances, which complicated things further. The following is a sort of timeline.

1. While located next to another co-op-y place, the Civic Media Center, the space was too small for people to buy all they needed.

2. What they had on their shelves, while committed to organics and local sources, was priced too high for the neighborhood.

3. Investors did not change their shopping habits and did not shop there; they supported the CONCEPT of a co-op, but kept shopping at Ward’s, Publix or wherever.

4. Volunteers were not used and discounts for work were not offered. It was a top-down business model.

5. While there was a community-building ethos at first — pot lucks, concert fundraisers, and talks — the main employee responsible for these events was fired by the Board, as was a well-liked assistant manager.

6. Other employees, alarmed at this action by the Co-op’s Board, organized into a union and informed the general membership of their concerns.

7. A new manager was brought in cold, from outside the community but a friend of a principal founder and Board member.

8. That new manager fired five of the workers who formed the union by email on a Monday morning.

9. Predictably, the store was picketed and lost a lot of customers, as well as a lot of good will.

10. Fired workers filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

11. The Co-op Board got bad legal advice and decided to stonewall the workers and not negotiate a settlement.

12. The NLRB ruled in favor of the workers, requiring back pay be provided.

13. Coincidentally, into Gainesville came Lucky’s, Trader Joe’s and other chains, drawing away potential Co-op shoppers.

14. The Co-op, through efforts of a heroic manager, remained open but barely, until finally tossing in the towel in August.

A lot of hopes for a community co-op were not fulfilled, a lot of investors never got any money back, and all in all it is a sad tale, in large part because there was so much well-intended effort among all involved.

But the circumstances, personalities and decisions made never allowed it to be a success.

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