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Dandelion Market looks for new direction

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Dandelion Market needs some help.

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That message came across loud and clear as members of what’s still generally known as the Carbondale Food Co-op came together at the Carbondale Branch Library to discuss the store’s future on March 1. Less certain was what form that might take.

Bill Shepherd, the member who called the meeting, advocated for dissolution of the board and perhaps the whole organization to allow for a fresh start as a nonprofit.

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“Don’t patch, fix it,” he said. “Do it right.”

According to attorney Erika Gibson, such a move would require a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the 600 members to hold a special meeting to amend the bylaws. Most of those assembled at the meeting seemed disinclined to attempt such a drastic change just four months before the lease is set to expire on the market’s Main Street location. The lot at the corner of 6th and Main also hosts Teresa’s Market and an annex for Sweet Coloradough, but it’s unclear whether other business on the parcel – owned by Equanimous Holdings LLC, which in turn is believed to belong to local landowner and philanthropist Bren Simon – will be expected to move, as well.

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“We’re trying to find a home by July. That’s pretty much tomorrow,” said Jason White. “I would rather see [the board] get some help and get us through the next few months, then see how we want to restructure.”

Others wanted more information and communication before choosing a direction.

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“I know that a lot of things have been tried. I don’t know what they are and why they failed, and I’d like to,” member Stephen Shapiro said.

“I don’t think dissolving the board is a solution,” agreed former board member and manager Max Christopher. “I think it’s bigger than that.”

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For Christopher and others, the move itself was a concern, with some expensive options on the table. While some rentals were available and a few had the potential for owner finance, Co-Op manager and Carbondale Trustee Katrina Byars advocated for one of the largest – 689 Main St., former home of the similarly named restaurant. She envisions a cooperative hub for area food organizations with an incubator kitchen and a meat market. Partnerships, she argues, make it cheaper in the long run – particularly with the potential for grants.

“A lot of what we’re doing qualifies us for some pretty special opportunities,” she said. “The intent is to be a really dynamic and viable new business.”

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Shepherd wasn’t convinced.

“I think that 689 would be a dream come true someday, but this is not the year,” he said. He bemoaned the 50-odd member turnout of the meeting and while his approach didn’t seem to gain much traction, his sentiments were not without support. Several of those assembled mentioned bare shelves in recent months, while even the board and staff acknowledged that Dandelion Market often runs in the red.

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“We took a pretty big hit when Whole Foods opened,” Byars said. “It’s a struggle without operating capital to be paying out backwards and not be able to buy forward.”

Even so, she cited several recent improvements to the store infrastructure and assured members that a recent interest-free loan would help restock the shop.

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“This place started organically, and the systems have been made up and adaptive as we’ve grown,” she explained. “What we’ve created here is kind of a miracle. These kind of institutions are shutting down.”

What now?

While the meeting generated plenty of ideas, the true outcome remains to be seen. Shepherd’s petition is still circulating with an unknown number of signatures. Some new members and volunteers have signed up (drop by the store), and calls for new board members may yet bear fruit (currently there are just three board members with room for at least six more; email for more information).

“It’s having a positive response – a call to action,” Board Chair Emily White said in a follow up interview. “My goal right now is to create opportunities for people to get involved … It’s been layers and layers of blame and fear. People make mistakes and right now we need people to rise up in their best selves and help.”

White remained optimistic about the potential to survive the move and come out stronger. “We have an amazingly conscious community, and I think that it can be an amazingly vibrant and profitable marketplace,” she added. “It’s so important that we are growing local food and supporting local farmers.”

For Byars, there’s also a cultural component.

“There’s a deep environmental ethic, but it’s really about the people and a place that we can all connect and break bread,” she said in the interview. “It’s about food, culture and connection.”

She sees a tale of two Co-ops – struggling financially but also a nexus of community spirit – with the latter as the cure for the former.

“The sky is not falling. We have faced challenges that I think are common to small businesses,” she added. “We’re in so much better condition than this idea that we’re upside down. So many people are committed to our success. By the time we talked about it, it was turned around.”

White hopes the end result of all the discussion will be momentum for the move.

“What we really need is people who will roll up their sleeves and help make this happen,” she said. “It’s really important that folks play an active role. That can be shopping, volunteering, getting people in the know, joining the board … Every little bit helps.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 9, 2017.