Rethinking the community marketplace

FORT COLLINS – Everyone acknowledges it’s still more dream than reality, but supporters of a community marketplace in downtown Fort Collins say they believe they’re getting closer to getting the proposed project off the ground.

The concept of a one-stop location for locally grown produce and a larger home for the Fort Collins Food Co-Op has been a recurring topic of discussion for more than a decade between the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority, local food producers and the Food Co-Op.

In its latest iteration, the project would be located on a two-acre site that would encompass the Northern Colorado Feeder Supply property at 359 Linden St., and the former Sears Trostel Building at 351 Linden.

Rich Shannon, a real estate broker for the project along with Kyle Lundy, said the concept broadens an earlier one studied last year in which only the Feeder Supply property was under consideration.

“Ultimately, we think it’s a much better site if both properties are included instead of just one,” Shannon said.

Combining the sites would double the size of a community marketplace, with additional office and residential possibilities when the Sears Trostel building is brought into the mix.

The Feeder Supply property is owned by Dennis Nater, while the Sears Trostel property is owned by Howard Perko, Shannon said. Feeder Supply is an outlet for farm and ranch products. The Sears Trostel building is now home to a health club and an engineering firm.

The proposed anchor of the marketplace would be the Fort Collins Food Co-Op, which has been constrained for years by its small space at 250 E. Mountain Ave. and would have room to expand if it moved to the marketplace.

Also envisioned at the site would be farmers’ markets now operating at other downtown locations, including at the Larimer County Courthouse in the summer months and the Opera Galleria in the winter.

The popularity of shopping for fresh foods at farmer’s markets has been steadily growing in Fort Collins, and there is now at least one farmer’s market operating every month of the year as residents seek out locally produced foods often hard to find in supermarkets.

Another possibility for the project is a community kitchen that could be rented by local food growers to prepare and cook foods for sale to large buyers seeking locally-grown items.

Definitely committed Emily Elmore, Fort Collins Food Co-Op board president, said the Food Co-Op is interested in being part of the community marketplace. “We’re definitely committed to being part of the marketplace concept,” she said.

But moving may take awhile, Elmore noted. Last week, Bill Gessner, a food co-op consultant with Washington, D.C.-based CDS Consulting, visited the city and met with co-op board members to advise them about the project and the Food Co-Op’s place in it.

Elmore said Gessner encouraged the co-op to pursue a move to a larger location. Under the new proposal, the Food Co-Op could triple its existing 1,800-square-foot space.

But it might take a couple of years before the Co-Op is ready for a move, she said.

Still to be done, she said, is for the food co-op to get sales projections within a much larger space, determine what level of funding would be needed and decide whether the 40-year-old cooperative would want to be a tenant or a co-owner in the project.

Elmore said the concept still needs to be hashed out with the cooperative’s leaders. “We’ll have a leadership summit to hammer out our vision for what we would want it to be,” she said.

The project would also depend on help from the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority, which has funding programs for façade improvements and provided funds targeted to help redevelopment in the River District, where the site is located.

The DDA also has tax-increment financing funds available for projects within its boundaries.

Total cost of the project remains unknown. A previous DDA study of the idea – focusing only on the redevelopment of the Feeder Supply property – was about $6 million.

Ted Spitzer, whose firm – Market Ventures Inc. – did the study last year, said the biggest hurdle to making the concept a reality is financing it.

“The financing is certainly a major issue, and I know the DDA has been looking for local, state and federal funding to help fund it,” he said. “But my sense is there’s a lot of (local) enthusiasm for it.”

Matt Robenalt, DDA director, said the DDA generally supports the concept of a community marketplace but has not yet taken a formal position on the current proposal.

“I’m actually quite pleased to see this joint effort between two adjacent landowners to think about a bigger concept opportunity,” he said. “That’s inspiring, and one of the things you hope to see is landowners getting excited and starting to think big about things.”

Robenalt said he sees a community marketplace as a way to consolidate food-selling activities in downtown. “This concept would help anchor them into a specific location and bring a sense of alignment to the whole local food system,” he said.

But for now, Shannon said, the project hinges on the Food Co-Op’s participation. “The information we get from the Food Co-Op will be key to tell us if the timing is right for this to unfold in the next couple of years or not.”