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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.