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Marlinton community co-op grocer in the planning stage

FaMIly reSourCe netWorK executive director laura young addresses a group at the Farmers Community Market interest meeting last tuesday. the project would bring a community co-op to Marlinton, where locals could buy and sell fresh, locally grown produce year-round. C.D. Moore photo
Family Resource Network Executive Director Laura Young addresses a group at the Farmers Community Market interest meeting last Tuesday. The project would bring a community co-op to Marlinton, where locals could buy and sell fresh,
 locally grown produce year-round. C.D. Moore photo

Cailey Moore
Staff Writer

More than a year has passed since Marlinton’s Fas Check closed its doors. Pocahontas IGA – located north of Marlinton on Route 219 – has since become the community’s main source for the everyday grocery needs, and during the summer, Pocahontas County residents stop in at their local Farmers Markets in search of fresh produce.

However, concerns have since been raised about losing the convenience of an in-town grocery store.

In recent months, discussions began about the possibility of bringing a community farmers co-op to Marlinton, and last Tuesday, residents gathered at the Marlinton Community Wellness Center to learn more.

“Our goal is to serve both the community and our local farmers and growers,” Roger Trusler, of Marlinton, said in his welcome before turning the meeting over to Pocahontas County Family Resource Network’s [FRN] Executive Director Laura Young.

According to Young, two events occurred within Pocahontas County which helped to bring the idea of a community co-op to the FRN’s attention.

The first was when North Central Community Action Association [NCCAA] dropped its monthly food pantry. Young reported a huge outcry from those within the local community – particularly from the elderly, low-income families who relied on receiving the pantry’s food each month as a means to get by.

To supplement the loss of the NCCAA’s pantry, Young and the FRN turned to the Mountaineer Food Bank [MFB], who in turn provided county residents with good food. However, the FRN quickly learned that the food provided by the MFB was not necessarily the healthiest option.

“Any food is better than no food,” Young added, “but we do want to try to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the tables of our low-income residents.”

The second instance that evidenced the need for a community co-op was the closing of Fas Check. Residents who could walk across the street to pick up what they needed, and those without means of transportation, now face a trek along Seneca Trail in order to get their groceries.

“What we’ve figured out at the state level is that, if our communities are not happy, growing places, it’s hard to have happy, healthy, growing families,” Young said. “As Roger said, there is a movement in West Virginia – and really, across the United States – for healthy local food.”

Young and [others] began looking at what communities across West Virginia are doing to help serve the needs of their citizens, and in their search, came across Alderson’s Green Grocer – which arose out of that community’s need for a local grocery store.

“The Green Grocer is basically taking local produce and selling it in a storefront,” Young explained. “They also have specialty items – such as Teays Valley Biscuit mixes and more.”

Alderson’s Green Grover opened in April 2015, and in a little over a year, has begun to turn a profit. The store employs a market manager, and AmeriCorps VISTA worker Rick Allen uses a refrigerated trailer to bring fresh produce to schools within the community.

Another model that caught Young’s eye was Monterey, Virginia’s Highland Center – a 501(c)3 organization committed to cultural and economic development.

One way the center provides and supports development is through a business incubation program, which “accelerates the successful development of small businesses and non-profits through support services, resources, affordable space and networking opportunities” (Highland Center website).

To make the program applicable to local farmers, the formation of a community co-op would provide farmers a place where they could bring their produce and sell it.

The Highland Center encourages youth development through programs such as youth employment and school garden projects, as well. To fit the programs to Pocahontas County’s model, Young posed the possibility of offering free classes – such as canning, cooking and more – with the help of the WVU Extension Service.

“The co-op wants to look at community and economic development, as well,” Young said. “There’s a lot of room in Pocahontas County for organic and non-organic produce. There are a lot of people looking for locally-grown, organic produce, and if we have some farmers that were USDA-certified organic, I think there there is a huge potential for this to start out small, and then, over a five-year period, turn into something akin to the Highland Center.”

Young touched on the importance of incorporating tourism and volunteerism, as well.

“The more people are involved in their community, the more they feel like they belong here,” she emphasized. “They feel welcome here, and that makes them want to stay here.”

In order for the co-op to become a reality, finding a suitable space is key – and what could be more suitable for a grocery than the former Fas Check building?

The building’s large space was previously home to a grocery store, and in its early stages, the co-op will operate on a much smaller scale than the building allots. However, a small-scale produce operation allows for a variety of options – including the possibility of a bakery, a commercial kitchen, a deli and a yogurt bar, where children can come after school for a healthy snack.

“There are a lot of people in the community who want to can and/or make products out of their produce to sell,” Young added, “but unless they have access to a commercial kitchen, they are unable to do so. Having access to something like that in a co-op could help incubate businesses – not by doing it for them, but by giving them the access and skill sets they need to be successful.”

Another option posed during the meeting was the ARC building.

“I hate to say it, but it doesn’t have to be Fas Check,” Shawn Gilmore, of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said. “The county commission offered us the tannery [ARC] for nothing. I know it’s got its faults – a little water damage here and there – but it’s free. For something starting out, who’s to say you can’t start out down there and then relocate down the road?”

To fund the project, a number of grants are in the works – one of which is a $3,500 Flexi Grant. The grant will provide the Farmers Market with the help it needs to put together a plan to start making enough money to hire a market manager every summer.

Another resource comes in the form of ON TRAC, a program created by Main Street West Virgnia to assist communities in their efforts to boost community and economic development. Marlinton has been an ON TRAC community for a number of years, and the specialists on staff offer a variety of support – from building design and marketing to technical support.

According to Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s website, the Growing Healthy Communities Grant Program offers grants for “ON TRAC communities for activities that increase community health and wellness while also providing opportunities for downtown revitalization and development.”

The grant is a $25,000 opportunity, and Young has been working closely with the WVU Extension Service to determine the best utilization of the grant.

One option being considered is the purchase of a refrigerated trailer.

“We really like the idea of a refrigerated trailer,” Young said. “It would allow us to put produce on a trailer and take the produce to our local communities and farmers markets in order to sell it. One of the problems the Farmers Market tells me they have is when their farmers have to take half a day on Saturday to sell their produce.

“By manning their stalls, our farmers are taken away from their farms, and they’re not able to do what they need to do. Through this co-op, we could begin to work together and drive the refrigerated truck around – sort of like a mobile market. The Family Resource Network would own the trailer, but it would be available to community members to use. All they would have to do is sign it out and attach it to their personal vehicle.”

Gilmore offered more insight on funding options, as well.

Only three loans are available through the government to West Virginians. Two of the loans are available through the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], and one is available through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture – where the state will match funds allocated by a local bank.

Nationally, the co-op is eligible for a grant through the USDA, as well as a guaranteed loan. For the guaranteed loan, a private bank would provide the loan, and the government would guarantee it.

“The best route to go is with a non-profit co-op, get it done, and just start fundraising,” Gilmore said. “That will help show government that we’re serious and that there’s money when you go to apply for grants and loans. There’s red tape everywhere when you deal with the government, but as far as getting started, we’ll probably have to do that on our own.”

In parting, Gilmore offered one piece of advice: “Don’t go into this looking to get rich. We’re not Charleston. We’re not Beckley. People aren’t going to pay those big prices here.”

Once the presentation had concluded, Trusler and Young opened the floor for questions.

One of the first questions came from Marlinton resident Michelle Bubnis, who was concerned with the co-op’s choice in preliminary locale. The former Fas Check storefront is located within Marlinton’s floodplain and would undoubtedly face high water should the Greenbrier River and surrounding creeks flood.

“The majority of us in this room have lived in Pocahontas County for a number of years,” Young replied. “We watch the water come, and then we take a step back to watch where the water goes out. In the first phase of the co-op, we’ll put our products higher up on the shelves. We’ll watch the weather, and when we see things coming, we’ll pull the products off the shelf and store it somewhere safe.”

If the co-op takes off and is awarded enough grant money to support a phase two, Young disclosed that the possibility of raising the store’s floors is, in fact, on the table. However, until Young and those who are involved with the project see how the community co-op is received, raising Fas Check’s floors is not a renovation that needs to be completed right away.

Another expected question dealt with the competitive market a community co-op might create for Marlinton figureheads like the Farmers Market, IGA, and other community supported agriculture [CSA] business ventures.

For those who are not familiar with CSA, community supported agriculture is a popular trend where consumers purchase local, seasonal produce directly from farmers. Farmers offer a limited number of “shares” to the public, and in exchange for purchasing a share, consumers receive a box of fresh vegetables. Pocahontas County’s very own CSA – Produce on the Move! – provides its customers naturally-grown eggs, meat, produce and value-added products from local growers.

At one point during last Tuesday’s meeting, Young passed around a preliminary design of what the co-op’s layout might look like if it is able to obtain the Fas Check building. The rough draft included a space allotted for Produce on the Move! and other CSA businesses – evidencing Young and the FRN’s hope that similar businesses might be incorporated into the co-op.

“There’s room for everybody in the co-op,” Young emphasized. “There’s a certain market for organic, and then there are those who don’t really care either way. If we work together and start to grow this, then everybody benefits from it.”

Young went on to explain that bringing a community co-op into Alderson was different from what bringing one into Marlinton will be. Unlike Marlinton, Alderson did not have a grocery store before the Green Grocer – whereas Marlinton has Pocahontas IGA.

“We’re proud of ours,” Young continued, “and we want to keep our IGA. However, I do believe that there is room in the community for some competition. Competition in any community is a good thing. The only thing that I would hate to see happen is a divide in the community – a divide that leads to an ‘it’s us and it’s them’ mindset.

“As a community of people and neighbors, we need to look at the big picture and try to work together. We don’t want to see anybody suffering from what we’re doing, and if you think for a minute that somebody is going to suffer, please tell me. We don’t want that to happen.”

Concerns were voiced over what a community co-op might do to the local Farmers Markets, as well. However, Young was quick to offer her reassurance to community members in attendance.

According to her, the county will always have room for farmers markets. One purpose of the markets is to provide customers and farmers alike a chance to buy and sell fresh produce, but more importantly, the markets serve as a popular social event for those who stop by and shop there.

“We don’t want to drive the markets out,” Young said reassuringly. “We want to encompass them and work together. Maybe what’s not sold on Saturday will end up in the store on Sunday as a way to eliminate waste.”

“What is IGA’s feelings about this?” one citizen asked.

“I don’t know,” Young admitted. “We need our IGA. I shop there, as do a lot of us. At some point, we’re probably going to have to bring them in and have a very frank conversation about where we think we’re going with this and how they think it might affect their business. Fas Check and IGA were in the community at the same time, and I wasn’t aware of any issues.”

The community co-op is still in its planning stages, and the project is looking to take its next step by meeting with farmers and producers, as well as establishing a Board of Directors, the By Laws and the Articles of Incorporation.

If you are interested in helping to develop the co-op and/or serve on the Board of Directors, please contact Laura Young via phone at 304-799-6857 or by email at pocahontasfrn@hotmail.com.

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