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Lost Pioneer

by Cecelia Martinez on October 19, 2011

Just 10 days after celebrating its first year in business, the Pioneer Market in downtown Troy, also known as the Troy Community Food Co-op, announced it would be closing its doors for good in an e-mail sent to owners on Oct. 15. While the announcement was abrupt, the market’s closure was of little surprise to shoppers and community members who watched the Pioneer Market suffer cash-flow issues and struggle to find and define its customer base.

The e-mail announcement, sent just after the market closed at 8 PM on Saturday, was succinct, explaining that persistently low sales and a cash-flow crisis led to the decision to close the market, and that loans and member equity would not be repaid. Board President Steve Muller said that the decision came after the market was unsuccessful in obtaining grant funding from the Federal Health and Human Services Fresh Food Initiative and experienced yet another month of losses.

“We learned in early October that our grant application was not successful, and when our September sales figures came in they did not show the rebound that we had expected,” said Muller, adding that board members and market staff had hoped the return of college students to the city and the end of summer vacation season would bolster sales. “In light of the fact that we had been in business a year and hadn’t really turned a profit in any month, nor was there a trend toward decreasing our losses, we decided that because we were getting to critically low [cash flow] levels, we decided we really had to close the co-op at that point.”

Muller, who came on as board president in recent months after the previous board resigned almost totally en masse, said that the unsuccessful grant application was filed with a program that helps bring fresh food—particularly produce—to urban food deserts like downtown Troy.

The Pioneer Market had made no secret of its financial struggles over its year of business, reaching out to owners and shoppers within weeks of opening last October, expressing concern over sales that were far below projected estimates and at one point asking owners for financial contributions. But the work to make a downtown Troy food co-op a reality actually began years earlier with community activists holding meetings and taking the first steps in securing the Congress Street location and financing through grant programs, banks and individuals.

“We worked really hard over a number of years, first to organize this co-op and then to launch it, so of course it’s very discouraging to see that, for some reason, we just couldn’t find a strategy to make enough money to turn it into a financially sustainable enterprise,” said Muller.

One of the market’s major disadvantages, in addition to its volunteer-based organizational structure and the fact that it was launched with just enough capital to open its doors, was the apparent identity crisis that saw high-end organic and locally-grown food on shelves next to conventional grocery items. While the combination was intended to serve the diverse surrounding neighborhood, shoppers complained at owner meetings that the market couldn’t be everything to everyone and still survive.

“Besides all the individual losses that our owners and our lenders and our employees suffer with the closure, Troy loses its really only source downtown of fresh food, particularly produce,” said Muller, adding that while there have been anecdotal reports of lenders shopping around for anyone willing to try again at a downtown grocery store in that location, it is not something the existing board actively pursued. “As a downtown Troy resident I would certainly welcome someone coming in, someone with a different business plan and more capital to make a go of it.”

Over the next week, store manager Bruce Storm and a handful of staff will stay on to assist with clean-up and the transition of inventory to lenders. Muller said that perishable food items were donated to Joseph’s House and Hope 7 Community Center in Troy, with whom the market already had a long-standing relationship. Muller said that while inventory theoretically goes back to secured lenders, the board is working with those lenders to possible sell the items locally.

“We’re talking to some local businesses and Honest Weight Co-op to see if they want to take some of our food,” he said.

Owners will have the opportunity to ask questions about the closure at a meeting scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 PM at Christ Church United Methodist, 35 State St., Troy. At the meeting, a formal vote will also take place to close the co-op in accordance with New York state law.