One year after announcing plans to relocate to Water Street, the list of possible future locations for Just Local Food Cooperative has expanded.
Operators of the small, member owned co-op that features locally produced foods said last January they hoped to move to space in the Aspenson Mogensen Hall building at 222 Water St. Just Local Food has outgrown its cramped quarters at Washington and South Farwell streets and could expand to meet customer needs at a larger location.
Since then, two other possible locations have popped up. Earlier this year, city officials chose Eau Claire developers Pablo Properties to develop Block 7, a large downtown parking lot just east of Phoenix Park, as well as a site east of a nearby parking ramp.
A grocery has been part of previous redevelopment discussions at Block 7, and Just Local Food officials said they would be interested in considering a move there. Julia Johnson, a partner in Pablo Properties, said Pablo plans a grocery at Block 7 and has discussed that idea with Just Local Food.
“We are supportive of any downtown grocery options,” she said.
Last month, another Eau Claire developer, JCap Real Estate, announced plans to build a five-story, 120-unit senior housing complex along the 700 block of South Farwell Street, across from the Leader-Telegram office. That project is proposed to house a grocery store/deli, JCap President Brian Johnson said.
Rachel Hart-Brinson, president of the Just Local Food board of directors, said all three sites are under consideration, although JCap may already have someone lined up for its grocery. The board of directors is committed to a downtown site for a future Just Local Food store, she said.
Last year, the board decided to have a market study conducted to help determine best possible relocation locations, Hart-Brinson said. In October, board members reviewed the study, which did not list any one site as strongly preferable to others.
“There is no clear (location) winner right now,” she said.
Eau Claire resident Kim Schmidt, a frequent Just Local Food customer, said she is happy the store plans to remain downtown. She praised Just Local Foods’ commitment to supporting regional food producers and said an expansion would allow it to grow its customer base.
“I’ll be ecstatic when they are able to expand and offer a greater selection of products and an enhanced deli with just more of what they already do well,” Schmidt said. “A community our size needs, and I believe will support, a full-size, full-service, member-owned co-op.”
Before moving, Hart-Brinson said, Just Local Food needs to raise between $2.5 million and $3 million, an ongoing effort being funded in part by the sale of memberships to the cooperative. The store continues to work toward that goal, she said.
In addition, the relocation of Just Local Food has been delayed by the departure last summer of general manger Maria Bamonti, who took a job at Feed My People Food Bank. Bamonti was spearheading the store’s move, and without a general manager, that effort has stalled, Hart-Brinson said.
“Not having a GM really has delayed this process,” she said. “We are looking for the right fit and haven’t found the right person yet.”
As Just Local Food looks to hire a general manager and continue to raise money, Hart-Brinson and others say they anticipate the day they can expand the successful, small-scale grocery recipe that has grown for the past two decades.
“We don’t have a specific timeline for opening a new store,” she said, “but we are working toward that.”