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Riverbend Market Cooperative: a Model for Main Streets

August 04, 2010 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow Lee Egerstrom

A group of growers, consumers and community business promoters have banded in the Red Wing area to form an integrated food system that promotes sustainable and organic agriculture from field to plate.
Such a description may sound as bland as a warmed-up Minnesota hotdish. Don't let it fool you.

Riverbend Market Cooperative in Red Wing is charting a new course that could be an economic development and an integrated food services model for the state which will help revive "Main Streets" following the current economic crisis.

Co-op founder Clarence Bischoff, a retired Hennepin County social worker who started and operates Vasa Gardens organic farm near Welch, began holding community meetings more than two years ago gauging and encouraging support among Red Wing area residents in a new sustainable food system.

While most food and agriculture co-ops are either producer-owned and operated or consumer-owned food stores, Bischoff intentionally set off to link both ends of the food chain around "shared values," he said.

As a result, he said, the goal for Riverbend Market Cooperative has been to create a community food system, rather than a growers' or a consumers' co-op, built on three criteria: quality, sustainability and social responsibility.

It has worked, sparking interest among people of various backgrounds. The initial group of 50 members includes lawyers, accountants, commercial property owners, web site designers, farmers, civic leaders and homemakers. Scott Adkisson and John McCullough, partners in Judicial Administrative Support Services LLC in Red Wing, describe these diverse backgrounds as "talents," and that has helped Riverbend Market in its formative stages.

Armed with these community resources, Adkisson recalls a moment when he said, "Hey, gang. Let's stop talking about it. Let's do it!"

An advantage a community-based co-op may have over an individual entrepreneur with a good idea is that these "talents" step forward and offer pro bono expertise to help launch a community venture, they said.

Shari Chorney, business development director for the Red Wing Port Authority, said Red Wing's history as a diversified manufacturing, trade and business services center creates an environment for community-supported entrepreneurship. It shows in Riverbend Market's experience to date; Bischoff estimates pro bono services reach well into the thousands of dollars.

This helps overcome problems most individual entrepreneurs encounter with capital formation.

One early member of the co-op, for instance, owns its future home, the building at 417 Main Street, across the street from Red Wing's historic St. James Hotel and down the block from the Uff Da Scandinavian gift store. Both are destination points for tourists and local residents alike. That building owner is making space available for Riverbend Market to get up and running before it must start paying rent.

Adkisson and McCullough see adjacent space in the building as great potential for related food and sustainable enterprise companies to open shops or offices and for the co-op to expand into eventual wholesaling and distribution of locally grown food.

That is a goal, Bischoff added. But that is down the road when the co-op can expand into a more complete food system. There are talks underway with food co-op interests in Minneapolis, he said, and the Just Food co-op at Northfield has been helpful to Red Wing planners to this point.

Riverbend Market recently hosted an outdoor market day to introduce area residents to the co-op and its plans. It will hold another such event on Saturday.  By fall, organizers hope to have Riverbend open seven days a week using a portion of the building's 6,000-square-foot first floor.  Parts of the building's additional 10,000 square feet of space will be used for community gatherings and events later on.

Going forward, a truly sustainable food system has to rationalize food assembly and distribution logistics so restaurateurs and food stores don't end up with a greater "carbon footprint" accessing locally grown food than from efficient distribution of imported foods. This is where the co-op will have opportunity to utilize more of the building's space in the future should it expand into the middle of the food chain with wholesaling, packaging, processing and distribution. 
Intellectual support will be needed as the co-op expands up and down the food chain. Riverbend Market's founders point out that expertise is currently available through University of Minnesota programs on the Twin Cities campus and at Rochester, and by University of Wisconsin-River Falls programs involved in the St. Croix and Mississippi river valleys.

All Minnesotans, and especially people involved with economic development, should be concerned that severe budget problems do not eliminate these university programs and expertise just as Minnesota needs them to climb out of the current recession. 

Meanwhile, economic development planners from around the state should take a peek over the river bluffs at Red Wing to study the business model being shaped through Riverbend Market. It is building an integrated food system for the various players in the food chain, starting with locally grown, sustainable food. Beyond that, it is finding a way to pool resources and talents for economic development - precisely at a time when accessing start-up capital and starting new businesses are difficult for most people.

The model evolving at Red Wing is not restricted to food. It would serve creative people in communities who are interested in turning surplus factory and retail space into productive new ventures.

Minnesota will need this creativity to rebuild the state and local economy for the future.       

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