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Catonsville co-op market making progress one year after its founding

Group raising funds for a storefront

By Brian Conlin, bconlin@patuxent.com

4:11 PM EDT, August 1, 2012

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Shannon Thomas knew last year when she began setting up a cooperative market to sell organic fruits and vegetables in Catonsville that she would face challenges.

The Catonsville resident just expected to clear the hurdles faster.

Tired of driving 15 minutes to get to specialty grocery stores that had the organic and natural foods she preferred to serve her family, Thomas began a quest last year to form a Catonsville Cooperative Market that would offer those same products closer to home.

Co-ops are owned and supported by members who pay a fee and receive discounts for the products they purchase.

Twelve months later, the market has made progress, but most of it has been outside the public's view.

"When we first launched this, I thought we'd have money in the bank and a storefront by now," said Thomas, the president of the co-op. "Progress is slow and steady, which is probably better."

Since Thomas began hosting meetings last summer to gauge the community's interest in the project, she has seen several Catonsville businesses fold in the weak economy.

"Watching various small businesses in Catonsville who have done really well and who have had to close their doors has been a reality check," said Thomas, who moved to Catonsville four years ago.

"We're not going into this with a franchise name behind us," she said. "If a community doesn't support a co-op, it's not going to work."

Thomas said it typically takes a co-op between three and five years to open.

"With that context, I think we're doing great," she said. "I wish we could wave a magic wand and have the co-op open."

Thomas recently stepped back from her role with the co-op because she didn't have as much time as she continued to raise a family, which includes a husband of 12 years and four children, and attended classes to become a yoga instructor.

"People have picked up the slack for me," Thomas said. "It sounds like they're getting quite a bit done, whether I'm there or not."

Megan Davis, secretary of the co-op's steering committee, said establishing a co-op is too much work for one person.

She said there is enough to do to keep the committee, which also includes treasurer Debbie Rosier, a Catonsville resident, and directors Emily Souder and Mike Souder, both Arbutus residents, busy.

The co-op has 15 founding members, Davis said.

Preparing for the future

Some of the co-op's recent accomplishments include selecting a logo and completing its bylaws, Davis said.

The next steps involve having an attorney review the bylaws so that they can become a nonprofit organization, conducting a feasibility study and getting the word out.

"We want to let people know that yes, we're still here. Yes, we're still hoping to open a storefront," said Davis, who moved to Catonsville from Ellicott City two years ago.

The "Cadillac version" of the storefront would be in Catonsville, occupy 6,000 square feet and require the co-op to raise about $1.5 million, Davis said.

"We are planning to do this in stages," Davis said. "We actually want to start small and hopefully grow into a bigger place."

A scaled-back version of the store occupying a space between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet is more realistic. In that scenario, a store could open in 2014 and feature produce and a refrigerated section, Davis said.

"We don't want to move too quickly because when you move too quickly, there's the potential for failure," Davis said.

Thomas said she hopes the co-op begins looking at commercial properties by next year.

To reach its goal of establishing a storefront, the co-op has organized fundraisers, such as a yard sale in Academy Heights in September.

A $25 fee is required to enter the co-op's buying club, which allows people to buy home care and self care items, as well as non-perishable food items online and pick them up from the home of a steering committee member.

"It's a good way for people to see what types of products are available," Davis said. "It's also a good way to support the co-op."

The buying club has between 30 and 50 families, Davis said.

Founding members of the co-op can buy products with no markup and vote on the direction of the co-op for a fee of $150.

Arbutus residents Emily and Mike Souder read an article about the co-op in the Catonsville Times last July and attended the first interest meeting in August.

Now the couple, who married three months ago, serve on the co-op's steering committee.

"The two of us have moved toward, especially in the last couple of years, eating locally grown food and eating more healthy," said Mike Souder, a Hanover native. "It was something we didn't feel we had access to around here."

Emily Souder, 26, and Mike Souder, 34, use the buying club to acquire everyday household items such as detergent, shampoo, soap and candles.

For produce, they shop, as they have for more than 3 years, at MOM's Organic Market in Jessup.

Neither has taken part in setting up a business before and the Souders said it was more intensive than they originally thought.

"Starting any sort of business is going to be a lot of work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears," said Emily Souder, a Catonsville native. "I expected one clear vision the whole time, but that can't be the case. The group that we have now is on the same page."

The co-op will have accept nominations for president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer in August.

Anyone can be nominated, but only founding members can vote in the elections.

The nominations are due by the co-op's next founding members meeting at 5 p.m. on Aug. 10, present-treasurer Rosier wrote in an email.

Founding members will have five days to review the nominations before the vote on Aug. 15, Rosier wrote.

Though the co-op is the brainchild of Thomas, she is happy to see so many people involved.

"That feedback is great. It's not all coming from my head or any one person any more," Thomas said. "There's a much more diverse group of people putting ideas together and making it work.

"Over the last six months, we've picked up more steam than we did in the first six," Thomas said. "Hopefully, over the next six months, a lot of the groundwork will be completed for things the community will be able to see."

For information about becoming a member of Catonsville Cooperative Market, go to http://www.CatonsvilleCooperativeMarket.com.

This story has been updated.