Monthly Archives: April 2015

Some Thoughts on Durham Co-op Market

In 2011, I interviewed a number of people involved in the efforts to open what was then known as Durham Central Market. The name reflected the organizers’ essential mission: to open a grocery in downtown Durham, which had none. The words “food desert” were often used in these interviews. A few of the board members lived in Old North Durham, so the impetus for the market was appealingly personal as well as public.

The interviews were conducted as part of an article I wrote for the Independent Weekly about the market, which was then in what was described to me as its fourth year of planning and development. The market board had an option to buy a parcel of land at Mangum and Broadway, and a goal to build the market on that land. The estimated cost of the project was $4.2 million.

That seemed like an awful lot of money to raise for a co-op startup, but I was inclined to be optimistic. I really wanted a grocery store I could walk to, and I live just three blocks from the location at Mangum and Broadway. I like co-ops generally, if they’re run well. I was a regular at Wheatsville in Austin when I lived there, and I tried my best to shop at the Durham Co-op (“The People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy”–apparently that was its actual registered name), even in its dying days, when the shelves were mostly empty and the produce largely rancid. A fair portion of the Durham Central Market organizers was composed of refugees from the doomed co-op.

I must say that I found the interviews tough to come away from with optimism. I got many vague answers, sometimes defensive ones, to very specific questions–none of which were especially pointed or doubtful–and evasive responses to my questions about fundraising and budgets. One of the board members (since departed) spoke at length about the “Slow Money” movement and a book on the subject. There was lots of theory, but indeterminate practice.

I was perplexed by the market’s proposed owner/investor system, which seemed–as I believe Ross Grady put it–“passive-aggressive.” It may be the way all co-ops work, but it seemed needlessly complicated, hard to wrap one’s brain around, and it had what struck me as unwieldy mechanisms for investment and return. I got the vague sense that the board was half hoping that Weaver Street Market would open a Durham branch and make all of their efforts unnecessary. Weaver Street was “what we want to be when we grow up,” project manager Don Moffitt told me. I thought, but didn’t ask, “Why don’t you want to be Durham Central Market when you grow up?”

I asked whether it was realistic to expect to raise $4.2 million for a co-op market–Weaver Street had launched on just $300,000-$400,000 in the late 1980s (yes, I know, inflation, economy collapse; but still)–and was told that it was realistic, especially if an angel donor would pony up an originating (and large) chunk of the money. That seemed like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, but Don Moffitt and the three board members I interviewed sounded confident about someone swooping in and dropping a big check on the project. I asked if the board had looked into existing structures in and around Central Park (which was the specific part of downtown where they wanted to locate the market), rather than building new construction. I was told that they’d looked at every space in the area, and that none of them were suitable. They were also adamant that the location on Mangum, across from what is now Saltbox, was the right one. They’d hired a marketing consultant to evaluate the site and were convinced of its worthiness.

At the time of my interviews with the board and Moffitt, early in 2011, DCM had less than $500,000 in hand. The market was just about to have a fundraising “pep rally.” (The article I wrote was published to coincide with it.) The goal was to raise $1.5 million through an “owner investment campaign.” The timetable for the campaign was only about a month–another unrealistic goal, I thought, as was the projected opening date of August 2012; but, again, I wanted to be optimistic. These people’s hearts were, and are, always in the right place. Re-reading the article I wrote with four years of hindsight, I can practically hear the words coming out through clenched teeth as I try to spin the story positively (which my editor encouraged me to do). I wanted to buy in, despite my misgivings. Self-interest was operating along with my local-business commitments, since I really wanted that market near my house and had already become an owner via a $140 household buy-in.

But I wasn’t surprised that nothing much happened after that. The owner investment campaign didn’t yield much, no angel donor materialized, and the board let the option on the land at Mangum and Broadway lapse. A year after the original story ran, I contacted the board and did a few follow-up interviews for a potential update story for the Independent. The only news of note was that the board had started exploring sites outside of downtown, including up in North Durham. So I didn’t write a story. There was really nothing to report except bad news–which I found quite dismaying. The whole point of the market, as far as I was concerned, was that it was going to be downtown. Otherwise, to me it was just a pet project of people who just wanted another Weaver Street Market. Much as I like the idea of keeping the money in the local economy, I already do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at the Farmers Market (which is not as overpriced as some people misjudge it to be), and I can go to King’s Red & White for the rest if I want to. The market was going to put an anchor downtown, make the area more livable, and issue a strong statement about urban life.

I stopped paying much attention after that attempt to write a follow-up story. It seemed to me that the board wasn’t all that devoted to its efforts. They had been generally lax about responding to interview requests, not very forthcoming with information, and unskilled at marketing themselves or keeping their efforts on the general radar. When I heard that the Self-Help Ventures Fund had finally stepped in and offered to build the co-op a building–virtually right on the site of the old co-op, an old-hat-new-hat outcome–I wasn’t surprised, although I was also not excited. The name changed, subtly but importantly, from Durham Central Market to Durham Co-op Market. Gone was the notion that the market was centrally located, despite what some of its apologists say.

One of the quotes I really wanted to use in my 2011 story, but decided out of decorum not to, came from Lex Alexander, who knows from the grocery business. Lex was pessimistic about Durham Central Market, and had told them so, but quipped, “Maybe people are finally fed up with Whole Foods.” The co-op is only a mile from Whole Foods, which offers far more goods and at similar prices, and not really in the direction of downtown. It mostly serves Lakewood and Morehead Hill, along with Trinity Park and Forest Hills–neighborhoods that generally don’t need another market, can only dubiously be called “diverse” (as the Independent’s recent article does), and certainly aren’t in a “food desert.” Whole Foods is quite convenient, as is the massive Harris Teeter that opened in the mean time. It may no longer matter that people are fed up with Whole Foods, if they actually are.

There’s a hideous new prefab apartment complex on the other side of the freeway overpass from the co-op, and the souped-up University Apartments in the other direction. I lived in the latter for three years when it was still the funky, wonderful “old girl,” as its superintendent called it, that was home to a diverse population. We all got evacuated when the place was sold and gussied up, and now it’s a place for Duke kids (I guess) who have a co-op nearby. It seems appropriate that both University Apartments and the old co-op have been reconstituted right on site, at higher prices–the co-op is not cheap. Same same but different, as they say.

The co-op never claimed it would be cheap, of course–it’s a mistaken notion that food cost is a draw of co-ops, especially in the modern, corporate co-op model. They sell local-economy spending opportunity, which is significant, and lifestyle choice, which isn’t. The products are largely the same as you’ll find in most other co-ops, and the perfectly pleasant space feels more or less identical to co-ops I’ve been in in Carrboro, Hillsborough, Burlington and elsewhere–again, the modern, corporate co-op model at work. I’m glad the co-op finally opened, and I’m sure I’ll shop there some, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it abandoned its founding mission and that downtown Durham still doesn’t have a place where you can buy a gallon of milk or a bag of rice.