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H St. Food Co-op Supporters in Full Campaign Mode

At this stage in its existence, the H Street Community Market resembles something of a political campaign:

• A “poll” was conducted to gauge the feasibility of the food co-op succeeding.

• Fundraising is a primary focus.

• Volunteers are set to fan out across Capitol Hill to earn support and generate word-of-mouth.

• Organizers are doing visibility events at Eastern Market and elsewhere.

It adds up to slow but steady progress toward the co-op’s goal of opening a retail location in the Northeast D.C. corridor in the fall of 2008.

“Things have really started moving,” said Project Manager Karine Bouis-Towe, who works 20 hours per week as the HSCM’s sole paid employee.

Recent successes that have the co-op’s organizers hopeful include a $4,000 fundraiser and the fulfillment of a $10,000 matching “Seed Fund” grant from a group that seeks to promote co-ops nationwide.

The group, Food Co-op 500, allows recipients to “draw down” on their grant, meaning the HSCM could receive matching funds for its first $1,000 raised, for example, rather than having to save the full $10,000 before seeing any grant money. The HSCM maxed out the grant in February.

Bouis-Towe said the HSCM has raised about $30,000, including the grant, and has nearly $10,000 in cash on hand.

A major expenditure of almost $10,000 went to a market study.

“We found a person who has been doing studies on co-ops for 30 years, and we got a lot of data from that,” Bouis-Towe said. “It was very thorough, dealing with possible store locations and the demographics of the area.”

The results of the study convinced Bouis-Towe and the HSCM’s six-member board of directors that their project could succeed.

“H Street is really trying to preserve local ownership and the local business model,” Bouis-Towe said. “It is kind of like Barracks Row. They don’t want a lot of chains.”

Even if a chain grocery store such as Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods moves to H Street, she said, the HSCM could still survive and might even thrive.

“For the success of the food co-op, having a Harris Teeter would actually be a benefit. It would bring more people to the area,” Bouis-Towe said. “Having a Whole Foods would be even better because it would bring in a new level of people who are knowledgeable about organic food.

“Our market study dealt with this. People who shop at Trader Joe’s shop somewhere else also, because Trader Joe’s doesn’t have everything.”

As for moving forward, Bouis-Towe said the HSCM plans to raise $400,000 to get a $2 million loan to open the store. A huge chunk ($200,000) of that money, it hopes, will come from a one-time, matching U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Food Projects Grant.

Once the HSCM realized it had to have written pledges totaling the size of the grant by the April 16 application deadline, it decided to wait until next year.

The co-op also can apply for a $25,000 “Sprout Fund” matching loan from Food Co-op 500.

Another important source of income will start in the summer, Bouis-Towe said, when the HSCM will begin receiving loans of at least $2,000 from members. Donors can select an interest rate of 0 percent to 4 percent for the loan. The law firm Hogan & Hartson is doing pro bono work to arrange the terms of the loans.

Bouis-Towe added that the HSCM organizers think it is realistic to increase its current membership of about 50 to 500 by the time the store opens. With the current $100 membership fee, that would generate an additional $45,000.

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