The East Lansing Food Co-op’s plan to start a new market to showcase locally produced food and other items is “on life support” because Lansing Township put too many obstacles in the way through the summer and fall of 2019, according to co-op board president Stephen Gasteyer.
Lansing Township Supervisor Diontrae Hayes said the co-op itself is responsible for the delays because of its “inexperience” with the permitting process.
Hayes said the site plan review process has “clear steps and guidelines” the co-op didn’t follow.
Gasteyer said the board decided to pull the plug on the project in November.
“We wasted months and money dealing with the permitters,” he said. “We decided that would take a very long time to work through the permitting process if we stuck with it at this site and we weren’t going to be able to do that.”
The co-op has been looking for a new spot and a more sustainable business model since it closed its old market on Northwind Drive in East Lansing in 2017.
Last spring, a member told the co-op board about a building for lease at 3026 E. Michigan Ave., just west of the huge Red Cedar development.
Marshall Clabeaux, project manager for the new store, called it “the perfect spot, between Lansing and East Lansing, right between both worlds and just off the highway. It has a garage door in the back so farmers can come right off the freeway and unload. You don’t get more perfect.”
The co-op named Alex Thompson as general manager for the market and hired a firm to draw up a site plan.
Throughout the summer, volunteers cleared brush in back of the store, painted new stripes in the parking lot and installed a fence around the Dumpster, at the township’s request.
They also did painting and repairs inside the store, but that was a bone of contention with the township.
“They started doing work on the building before pulling the permit,” Hayes said. “That’s always a big no-no. Because it’s commercial, you have to pull those permits with one of the trades, because we have to insure that work is safe. That’s what set them back. They already started on the wrong foot.”
The co-op got a “conditional approval” of its site plan in early November, but Clabaeux said the co-op board was taken aback by the conditions.
They included submitting signage permit applications to the township for review, making the parking lot handicap accessible and altering the setback to conform to code.
“It would have been nice to know these things four months ago,” Clabeaux said. “Through this whole process, it’s almost been like the mouse and the cheese. They give you a little bit, lead you to the trap.”
Hayes chalked up the summer of delays and miscommunications to “either inexperience or blatant disregard for what the rules are, I don’t know which.”
The delays hurt the co-op more than they would have affected most businesses. The members hoped to open in late summer, just before the harvest reached its peak.
“The clock was ticking on when we were able to get the most produce and show people what we were going to sell,” Gasteyer said.
With the weather worsening, the co-op asked the township for more time. The township notified the co-op that an extension through May would require a $15,000 performance bond.
Clabeaux called it a “deposit” the co-op couldn’t afford, but Hayes said that is inaccurate.
“It’s like insurance,” Hayes said. “In the event of a default, if the township has to come in, we can draw against that performance bond to do the work.”
For co-op members, it was the last straw.
“We took the weekend to simmer down and reflect,” Clabeaux said. “On Nov. 12, the board decided that they just don’t want us to play. We’ve got to get out.”
The co-op planned to shift from what Clabeaux called a “big-box” model, with weekly sales and a hefty promotional budget, to a farm market model similar to Local Roots Café in Wooster, Ohio, and Ann Arbor’s Argus Farm Stop, where the co-op takes a percentage of sales in exchange for housing and selling the goods.
“Producers like it because they can just drop their goods off,” Clabeaux said. “It keeps you flexible. We could have done candles or other Michigan made goods, especially in the winter time.”
The co-op board hopes that its next iteration will serve a growing base of consumers who want to buy locally grown produce but can’t make it to farmers markets and appreciate the convenience of paying for everything at one register.
On the supply side, mid-Michigan is rich in what Gasteyer calls “micro-farms,” from small farms of 20 to 30 acres in the rural areas around Lansing to the dozens of community gardens, a quarter acre or less in size, that are proliferating within the city limits.
“Those folks don’t have enough volume to sell through Meijer, but they’re definitely producing more than they get rid of through a couple of farmer’s markets a week,” Gasteyer said.
Gasteyer said the co-op board is looking at other locations.
“We are in conversation with other organizations about partnering,” Gasteyer said. A source who asked not to be named said talks are underway between the co-op and the Allen Neighborhood Center and its weekly farmers market.
Meanwhile, the co-op’s dry good dispensers, shelving and other equipment are still warehoused in the Lansing Bike Co-op, waiting to be dusted off.
“It just sucks,” Clabeaux said. “A lot of effort went into that site. It would have served us well and it would have served the community well.”
Hayes said the co-op is “an honorable institution that provides a great service to the community.”
“I patronized it personally when it was in East Lansing,” she said. “I would love for them to be in Lansing Township, but no matter how supportive we are of their mission, we have to be fair. Every business has to comply with the same permit requirements.”