Berkshire Co-op Market meets $1.3 million fundraising goal, construction on new ‘Powerhouse’ store starts this fall

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By Thursday, Jul 20 News  5 Comments
A rendering of the new Berkshire Co-op Market location in the Powerhouse Square project on Bridge Street. The Co-op has just reached its goal of raising $1.3 million from its ownership to enlarge the market.

Great Barrington — After reaching its ambitious fundraising goal this week, Berkshire Co-op Market is poised to move onto its next phase — building a brand new store on Bridge Street as part of an upscale, mixed-use development.

As previously reported in the Edge, the $1.3 million campaign to finance the project got off to slow start last fall, but fundraising efforts accelerated this spring.

The current location of the Co-op Market on Bridge Street. Photo: David Scribner

The current location of the Co-op Market on Bridge Street. Photo: David Scribner

By philanthropic standards, the campaign to raise the funds was an unorthodox one, though typical in cooperative circles. As its name suggests, the Co-op is a cooperative. That means that, while anyone is welcome to shop there, Co-op customers who join as members actually become shareholders of the organization and receive dividends.

So the Co-op and its board of directors were able to raise money from members by accepting donations that are, in effect, loans from members that will eventually be repaid with interest.

Co-op General Manager Daniel Esko. Photo: David Scribner

Co-op General Manager Daniel Esko. Photo: David Scribner

“We were asking people to invest in their beliefs because the Co-op is intertwined in the fabric of Berkshires life,” Co-op General Manager Daniel Esko said in an Edge interview. “We are a powerful force for good in the community. The Co-op is all about real food and doing real good — and building a cooperative economy.”

The Co-op’s campaign got off to an inauspicious start last October. First, there was the distraction of perhaps the most contentious presidential campaign ever — one that resulted in the election of a president who is widely unpopular among Co-op members.

Then, there were marches, protests and various other events and causes that developed as part of the resistance to the presidency of Donald Trump. The election and later circumstances conspired to produce what Co-op Board President Daniel Seitz called a “major distraction” that “really interfered with our ability to capture [members’] attention.”

Co-op Board President Dan Seitz.

Co-op Board President Dan Seitz.

Then there were the holidays when members’ thoughts turned to family and celebrations. Then there was the typical Berkshire County winter when many Co-op members were spending time in other locales.

It wasn’t until April that the Co-op and its board launched “a shift in our messaging that contributed to our success in this last round [of fundraising],” Esko said.

The change was needed because from November to April, the Co-op raised only about $400,000. The campaign had to be suspended a couple of times for reevaluation. But it picked up steam in April, raised almost $1 million and just met its goal late last week when the Co-op announced it in a news release.

“The timing in late spring and early summer turned out to be a perfect opportunity to engage with our ownership, unencumbered by distraction,” Esko said.

Over the course of the campaign, 150 Co-op members/owners have made loans ranging from $1,000 to $100,000.

“This expansion will help level the playing field for the Co-op, giving us the vehicle to carve out a larger piece of the marketplace,” Esko explained. “Further, it will reinforce the Co-op’s position as the premier destination for real food in the Berkshires.”

The Co-op’s new headquarters will bring the organization even further from its humble roots. The Co-op started as a buying club and opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in 1981 in the granary building on Rosseter Street that is now the home of Mixed Company theatre. The Co-op moved into its current Bridge Street home, which housed the former Fitness Express gym, in 2003.

A rendering of the Powerhouse Square project at the top of Bridge Street.

A rendering of the Powerhouse Square project at the top of Bridge Street.

The move to the new location won’t be a long journey. The first phase of the $15 million mixed-use development at the top of Bridge Street will feature a Co-op expanded to 14,000 square feet in the area next door to its current location, where the Co-op’s current parking lot and the former Laramee’s Cleaners block are. The latter will be demolished as part of the project.

Powerhouse Square, as the development will be known, will also feature retail and office spaces and 22 modern condominiums. The new parking lot will go where the Co-op currently sits. The Co-op will be the retail anchor with a long-term lease from Benchmark Development, which will develop and own the property.

The second phase will see the construction of a 32-unit condominium complex and parking garage set back to the north, closer to the John Dewey Academy property, also known as Searles Castle.

In an interview, Benchmark Principal Michael Charles said his firm has the approvals required to start work, having obtained a special permit from the Select Board at the end of February.

Powerhouse site map

The Berkshire Co-op Market will move to a new 14,500 square foot building at the site of the current parking lot and former Laramee’s Cleaners block. The current Co-op building will be razed for a parking area. The development will feature condos, retail and office space. The above illustrations shows the location of the current Co-op building (site-2 in green to left of ‘Searles Castle Property Street’ in purple).

That special permit was needed because much of the property lies in the village overlay district. Charles says Benchmark still needs to complete detailed structure designs and obtain the necessary building permits but he sees no problems with either of those tasks. Site plan approval has also been received from the Planning Board.

Phase 1 includes creating a temporary parking lot behind the current Co-op because the new building will be sited where the existing parking lot is. An access road on the eastern edge of the property, abutting Memorial Field, will also have to be constructed.

Benchmark has also agreed to work with the town to improve the ballfield — perhaps by building a retaining wall between the parking lot and the field that would allow for more places to sit and view games or to simply sit outside. Work on Phase 1 will start in September or October.

Phase 2 is the construction of the new Co-op building, which includes additional retail space for other businesses on the first floor and 22 condos on the second and third floors. Charles expects ground to be broken for that project “before the end of the year,” with a 12-to-13-month construction period.

Benchmark will also be required to consult with the town on the upcoming Bridge Street, Bentley Avenue and Church Street infrastructure improvements made possible by a $2.1 million MassWorks grant.

That grant was awarded in 2015 as a result of the expected growth increased traffic and run-off generated by some large proposed development projects on Bridge Street that include a 88-room hotel in the former Searles Middle School, a possible mixed-use development at 100 Bridge Street — both in addition to Powerhouse Square itself.

Those projects will surely change the face of the Bridge Street neighborhood, coming as they do on the heels of the redevelopment of the former Bryant Elementary School by Iredale Mineral Cosmetics Inc., which opened its world headquarters there in 2014.

“We think the town is right in establishing Bridge Street as an extension of the Main Street corridor,” Charles said in an earlier interview.

Charles couldn’t say yet when Phase 3 — the construction of the second residential building and parking garage, will start.

Charles said preconstruction condo sales have been good. So far, there are seven or eight under contract. According to Berkshire Property Agents, which has the listing for the units, prices range from $325,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $925,000 for a deluxe 1,700-square-foot two bedroom, three-bathroom unit.


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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Laura says:

    $925K for a condo over a grocery store?? More “affordable” housing in Great Barrington.

    1. Joan Wood says:

      tooo much~~I agree Laura~~sad, this kind of building takes away the beauty of our small town, when does all of this stop?~Joan

  2. Mark Silver says:

    Laura and Joan, of course we need more affordable housing. I know nothing about the financing of this project, and I assume that is true for you, too. But any bank that will be lending millions of dollars for a development project wants to know the project is feasible. Perhaps this project needs the high priced condos to make economic sense.

    You and I may not like it, but we live in a free market. Banks aren’t in the charity business. The free market won’t build affordable housing in our town. It will take tax dollars, nonprofits, government agencies and volunteers. The good news is that it is happening.

    Since you are passionate about affordable housing, please get involved. Write to elected officials and tell them that you don’t mind paying more taxes if it goes to developing affordable housing. They honestly believe you ink your taxes are too high.

    Donate to Construct and the CDC. Volunteer to serve on the Community Preservation Committee.

    I don’t mean this as an attack, really, I don’t. But our housing crisis won’t get solved without work and money.

    The developers of this project are not creating affordable housing. That’s not their mission. But they are generating tax revenue and binging jobs. That’s worth praise.

    Please, get involved. Donate money. Make a difference.

  3. Stephen Cohen says:

    I am still at a loss concerning the details of the lease the coop will have with the developer, and what would happen if the developer is unable to build because of a lack of financing, environmental problems because of the old dry cleaner site, etc. The coop indicates that the $1.3 million will be used to build out the space once it is completed. Hopefully that money won’t be available to the developer to finance the construction of the buildings, and will be kept in an escrow account until the space for the store has a certificate of occupancy issued. The offering documents for the loan were unclear on all the foregoing, and there has never been a clear explanation of exactly what the deal is with the developer. While I can only admire the faith of the cooperators in their institution, I hope it is not misplaced because of bad business and financial decisions.

  4. Tom Blauvelt says:

    Congratulations to the Co-op for achieving their fundraising goal and as a Co-op member I hope the project moves forward. However, a fall start date for construction seems optimistic since according to MA Registry of Deeds I cannot find any record of the Benchmark Developers purchasing any of the properties in question.

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