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Ecossentials moves toward co-op

Committee expects whole foods store to become member-owned by end of summer
ECO TRANSITIONS: Food co-op steering committee member John Young will be working with owner Melissa Call and others as Ecossentials moves to become member-owned later this year. Chris Bolster photo

What started out as a local whole foods store with fewer packaged products is on its way to becoming a member-owned cooperative.

Powell River Community Investment Corporation (PRCIC), a community-supported investment fund, already owned a minority stake in Ecossentials, but now the fund has made an offer to acquire full ownership of the business.

PRCIC president and chief investment officer Sean Melrose confirmed the offer has been made. The deal has not yet been finalized, but a final decision is expected in the coming weeks, he said.

Melrose said the buyout will allow current majority owner Melissa Call to receive money for the sale upfront and open the door to transform Ecossentials into a member-owned co-operative.

He added that he is trying to make it as easy as possible for the store to become a community-owned asset.

“I’ve structured the offer to the nascent co-op in such a way that they do not necessarily need a ton of money upfront,” said Melrose. “I’m going to allow them to buy the business for a nominal amount to start and then pay the rest through the business’s profits.”

Call said she is happy with the direction Melrose will take the business and added that she saw Ecossentials developing into a co-op long ago.

Steering-committee member John Young said he hopes the co-op will be established by the end of the summer.

“There is clearly a lot of interest in a locally-owned, locally-governed food co-op for Powell River,” said Young. “Many of us hope that in coming weeks and months that interest will translate into the founding of the co-op and all that would entail.”

The committee is looking to examples of other successful food co-ops, such as Kootenay Co-op in Nelson and the food co-op movement in Washington State. The committee has been working on the transition with BC Co-operative Association.

To gauge interest in a member-ownership model, a food co-op steering committee was struck last winter and an online survey published to collect the community’s thoughts.

Results of the survey were released on Saturday, May 7. During the two-week period it was open, 233 surveys were completed.

“It was a great response and I’m happy with the results,” said Call.

She added she thinks responses point at enough support in the community to transition towards the cooperative-ownership model.

The survey found that close to 80 per cent of respondents purchase their groceries primarily at larger chain supermarkets and 14 per cent spend the majority of their grocery budgets at Ecossentials.

Regarding locally-grown food availability, 62 per cent rated their primary store’s as somewhat poor to very poor, 36 per cent as somewhat well to very well and two per cent had no opinion, according to survey results.

When asked about the most important features for shopping at a co-op, the majority of responses indicated the member-ownership model rated highest, but ability to run and vote for a board as least important.

The co-op will operate on the one-member, one-vote principle, but Melrose said the co-op will need to build capital, so investor shares will be available for community members wishing to invest. Those investment shares are not ownership shares though, he explained.

The survey asked respondents what level of financial support they would be willing to give the co-op. Based on the results, those responding to the survey would be prepared to invest a total of close to $200,000 in the business, despite the fact that over half of the respondents said they would not be prepared to support the co-op through purchasing investor shares.

Close to 58 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to pay between $50 and $150 for a lifetime membership fee to join the co-op.

Ecossentials grew out of Sunshine Organics, Call’s first venture, started in 2002. The local market opened on Marine Avenue in 2009 and offered organic produce and a wide variety of bulk goods and eco-friendly products.

According to Call, the range and number of products available expanded rapidly and quickly outgrew the available space in the storefront.

Two years ago, Call purchased the shop’s current location on Alberni Street and has been working to continue her original vision.

She said she will continue working with Ecossentials once it has transitioned into a co-op.