Fall 2016 General Membership Meeting

Mary Sweeten, Editor, Weavers Way Shuttle

Robert Leslie Smith photos
The Great Hall of the newly renovated Waldorf School in Germantown provided a suitably grand venue for the Fall GMM, including GM Jon Roesser's slideshow discussion of plans for the Ambler store.

The financial state of Weavers Way is good — considering — and work to open a third Co-op store in Ambler is coming together, General Manager Jon Roesser told Weavers Way members at the Fall General Membership Meeting.

About 150 people gathered Nov. 13 at the Waldorf School in Germantown, admiring the renovation of the former St. Peter’s Church and chowing down on a chili buffet masterminded by executive chef Bonnie Shuman. As at the Spring GMM, many members brought their own plates and forks, while others paid $1 to “rent” a place setting in support of the Environment Committee’s Zero Waste effort. 

Board President Chris Hill acknowledged the mood, less than a week after Election Day, in his opening greeting. “There’s a constant need for communities like ours, more so than ever in the future,” he said. “In a world that feels a little more fragile, this is a great community that provides kind of a foundation of hope and good work in the world.” 

Food Moxie Executive Director Jill Fink summarized the successful outreach of the program formerly known as Weavers Way Community Programs to students at Martin Luther King High School and children and adults at Stenton Family Manor, the city’s second-largest family homeless shelter. Farm Manager Nina Berryman reviewed another successful farm year, with increases in output, income and attendance at the farm’s signature Harvest on Henry festival. Co-op member Barb Bloomfield described the Northwest Philadelphia Solar Co-op, which seeks to increase home solar installations by getting group discounts, and is currently looking for 21 participants whose homes are suitable for rooftop solar.

But the bulk of the meeting was taken up by Jon’s PowerPoint-aided General Manager’s Report, which focused on two main topics: Co-op finances and the Ambler expansion. 

“Remember we thought fiscal ’16 was going to be very challenging? As you can see, we really had a really solid year,” with nearly $21.7 million in revenue compared to $20.7 million the previous year. “So overall, in terms of fiscal year performance, the Co-op did very, very well,” Jon said, to applause. 

Then he continued: “The next slide is important, because it shows how our business is behaving — through Jan. 31, total Co-op sales growth was 7 percent — that’s crazy. But I chose that date for a reason, because that other store” — Fresh Market in Chestnut Hill — “opened Jan. 28.” 

Over the next five months, to the end of fiscal 2016, the Mt. Airy store still showed sales growth just over 8 percent, but Chestnut Hill sales growth dropped from 6.5 percent to 0.87 percent.

“The Mt. Airy store continued to have awesome sales growth. The Chestnut Hill store, their sales growth slowed. They still beat prior-year sales — but as a result, overall Co-op growth slowed . . . and the one big change is we now have a big competitor a few blocks away,” Jon said.

The solution? “We have a strategy to improve sales, especially in Chestnut Hill, and we’ve implemented some of the aspects of that strategy already and we’ll continue to implement them over the next few months,” Jon said. In response to a question, he elaborated that Chestnut Hill is working through “two 25-page-long” sets of recommendations from the National Cooperative Grocers, the Co-op’s national trade group, for revamping the produce and meat and seafood departments. 

Moving on to Ambler, Jon said:

  • Weavers Way is close to signing the sublease on the building, the former Bottom Dollar at 217 E. Butler Ave., and still negotiating with the landowners to secure rights to the property once the sublease is over. In response to a question, Jon explained that once the sublease with Aldi, the German discount grocery chain that bought the Bottom Dollar chain, is over, the building reverts to the landowners.
  • Lawyers are working on a document to join Ambler Food Co-op with Weavers Way. “AFC is a cooperative enterprise just like Weavers Way except without a store,” Jon explained. “They have about 400 active members who have paid equity. They have voted overwhelmingly to do whatever is necessary” to cease being AFC and join Weavers Way.
  • As far as project costs go, the $4.3 million budgeted breaks down to $1.4 million for construction, $1.6 million for equipment, and the rest for professional fees, inventory and startup costs — the latter including staff.
  • In terms of funding, the plan is for $3 million in traditional financing, such as bank loans, with the rest coming from unsecured member loans, development grants from the state or Montgomery County, vendor contributions and cash in the bank. “We have submitted proposals to our lenders; the feedback has been very favorable but we are still waiting to hear on commitments,” Jon said.

He then opened the floor to questions. 

On the recurrent electrical outages in Chestnut Hill: “What I am told is the CH infrastructure is totally antiquated and prone to problems. We have had now four non-weather-related outages in the last 14 months. We are installing a backup gas generator on the roof, and we have budgeted for one in Mt. Airy as well.”

Any plans for solar power at the stores? “Not yet. The Ambler store offers the best opportunity because of the large flat roof. But solar is costly and there aren’t as many incentives as there used to be. We’re talking to [Ambler-area State Sen. Stewart] Greenleaf; there might be some loan money out there.”

Any plans to expand to Delaware County? “No. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t. . . . Delaware County is an area where we don’t have name recognition like we do in Ambler.”

Prospects for the Garage at 542 Carpenter Lane: “Since we own the building, we have the luxury of being able to just hang onto it. . . . You may have noticed it needs some work. It needs a new roof, it needs new plumbing, it needs new electric, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. . . . The Ambler project is really taking up a lot of our resources and time at the moment, as you can imagine. So for now we’re pretty content with just letting it be what it is — the pop-up store, workshops, the debate watch parties.”

And, as is traditional at the GMM, the questions turned to parking, specifically the lot behind the store in Chestnut Hill. “It is not our parking lot,” Jon reminded. “It is owned by Acadia Realty, which owns the building where Iron Hill is. . . . and right now, it’s anarchy in that lot.” He said the Co-op has joined negotiations to persuade Acadia to turn administration of the lot over to the Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation, which would install a parking-fee kiosk. Iron Hill, for one, also supports the proposal. “It’s a matter of convincing the Acadia folks to go for it,” Jon said. “It’s just not our land.” 

In response to a comment from the back, he added: 

“Bernadette would like me to mention that in Ambler we will have 85 parking spaces of our very own. So that will be something to get used to. We have to figure stuff out like snow plowing or what to do if we get a pothole — we never had to do that before. But that’s exciting!”