An uplifting story doesn’t always have a happy ending.
So it appears, sad to say, with the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store, an inspiring example of one neighborhood’s determination to better itself, no matter the odds.
For more than 10 years northeast Greensboro residents struggled to attract a grocery store to their area, which is federally designated as one of several “food deserts” in Guilford County. With no takers to be found, they settled on another approach: to start a grocery co-op, owned and operated by the community. And, with help from the city and two nonprofit organizations, they succeeded, opening the co-op in 2016 with a flourish of pride and optimism.
The store was community-owned and employed workers from the community. It provided fresh, healthy foods in a part of the city where they hadn’t been easily available. The co-op also was the anchor tenant of a shopping center that had become an eyesore and was now revitalized with a new look and new businesses.
In a model of collaboration, an organization called Concerned Citizens for Northeast Greensboro partnered with Self-Help, a nonprofit community-development lender based in Durham, as well as the city of Greensboro and the locally based Fund for Democratic Communities to make it happen. More than 1,300 people invested as co-op shareholders, and, although northeast Greensboro is a predominantly African-American community, it was not uncommon to see white faces at Concerned Citizens meetings.
But after a promising start, the store’s revenues didn’t kept pace with expenses. The co-op officially will close it doors on Jan. 25. The store’s demise also will deal a serious a blow to the shopping center.
What went wrong? Some cite a lack of effective marketing and advertising. The co-op struggled to achieve the right balance of healthy foods and popular ones. Others say competition from more traditional grocers hurt, including a Walmart off U.S. 29, even though they were not as conveniently located.
The co-op did make changes. It hired a consultant. It ran promotions and sponsored community activities. Last spring it brought aboard an experienced new general manager, Mike Sakellaridis, who had run a grocery co-op near San Francisco for eight years.
But only a week after Sakellaridis had taken the job, a tornado left the store without power for a week, saddling it with lost sales and inventory.
It’s hard to be sure why such a spirited grass-roots effort didn’t succeed. What is unmistakable is the lesson in all of this — that people working together can create change from the bottom up. And that they can apply similar approaches to other needs and initiatives.
Probably none of them will be consoled by moral victories. For now.
Meanwhile, two businessmen have attracted a grocery chain, Piggly Wiggly, to a shopping center they are reviving in another local food desert at Freeman Mill Square Shopping Center. And, who knows? The book still may not be closed on a grocery store for Phillips Avenue. Concerned Citizens, which also successfully fought the reopening of the White Street landfill, remains active in community affairs.
As their track record attests, this is a resilient bunch. They’ve been down before, and they’ve gotten up.