Business

Tacoma-Seattle grocery co-op merger not so smooth for Tacoma patrons

Central Co-op CEO Dan Arnett watches employee Shelby Alexander moves merchandise out to a moving truck at the closed Central Co-op in Tacoma July 18. The co-op says it remains committed to finding a new location for its Tacoma customers.
Central Co-op CEO Dan Arnett watches employee Shelby Alexander moves merchandise out to a moving truck at the closed Central Co-op in Tacoma July 18. The co-op says it remains committed to finding a new location for its Tacoma customers. Staff file, 2016

A series of meetings has left members of Central Co-op grocery in Tacoma and its management at odds.

But both groups say progress is being made.

“I felt that the Central Co-op leadership was hearing the concerns and frustrations from the Tacoma community,” said Tacoma member Najeea Leslie, who attended a members-only meeting Tuesday.

Co-op members were thrown into a tailspin in July when their Tacoma store on Sixth Avenue abruptly closed, just a half year after merging with the Seattle-based Central Co-op. That led to fears that Central had abandoned Tacoma. Since then, rancorous disputes with members, security guards and the co-op’s president have fueled member distrust.

“There were fireworks,” Leslie said. “It was a little tense.”

Thursday, the man at the center of the controversy, co-op President and CEO Dan Arnett, announced that he has taken a new job in California as general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

Late last month, the Sacramento co-op opened a new $10 million store.

For now, Central Co-op has a grocery at 1600 E. Madison St. in Seattle, where Tacoma members can shop.

However, little progress has been made on opening a new Tacoma store or even choosing where to place it.

“We will continue our work opening a new storefront in Tacoma,” Arnett said.

A SUDDEN CLOSURE

Chrissy Cooley had shopped at the co-op since it opened in 2011. She’s been a card-carrying member for three years. Membership costs $100, payable at once or in “small installments,” according to Central Co-op’s website.

“Central Co-op is a solidarity cooperative. At Central that means we’re owned and democratically controlled by customers and workers who have each purchased a share of the business,” the website states.

Many shoppers join for the farmers marketlike quality of produce and availability of organic and natural food varieties and local products.

“It was nice to be able to go there and pick up anything and not have to read labels and know anything I picked up was ethically sourced,” Cooley said.

Cooley and her husband bought their first home near the Tacoma co-op because they liked it so much.

Like many co-op members, Cooley was caught off guard by the Tacoma store closure in July. Lease negotiation difficulties were cited by co-op management and the co-op’s landlord.

To help, Cooley co-coordinated a July 26 community rally.

“Somebody needed to step up and bring the community together because Central wasn’t putting out any information, and people were left in the dark,” Cooley said.

Though she invited Arnett, she said no one from the Central Co-op management attended the rally.

Arnett said management declined to attend for several reasons and resists calling the meeting member-organized.

“I don’t exactly know what their purpose was, but that was a group of people who decided to have a meeting,” Arnett said. “That wasn’t an official function of membership. It didn’t follow any governing aspect of this co-op.”

The meeting was just a small fraction of the co-op’s 15,000 members and therefore not representational of it, Arnett said.

“There were just a lot of fairly hostile commentaries coming from some of the folks that were involved organizing that thing,” Arnett said.

A ‘COMMUNITY CONVERSATION’

On Aug. 18, the co-op management held what it called a “community conversation” at the STAR Center in Tacoma.

That day, before the meeting, Cooley said she got a call from a co-op staffer telling her that she had been barred from the meeting.

“I was banned (from) coming to any Central events, posting about them online or shopping in the store,” Cooley said.

Cooley said she and others have been blocked on the co-op’s Facebook page.

Arnett would not comment on any actions taken on specific people.

“It’s not a public matter, as I see it,” Arnett said. But he did confirm some sort of action was taken.

“Anytime we have certain rules violated or laws violated or standards of behavior violated, we take action,” Arnett said, but did not say what those violations were.

Cooley and others reserved an outdoor space at the STAR Center and set up a projector and screen to view live tweets.

One of those tweeters inside the meeting was member Hannah Miner.

Miner’s domestic partner was barred from attending, as only one member per household was allowed.

“He had to sit outside of the meeting room and wasn’t allowed to participate,” Miner said.

Curtains were set up to block views into the meeting room.

Four security guards were hired for the meeting, a response to hostile comments on social media directed at the co-op, Arnett said.

“We also had heard that people were organizing some way to disrupt the meeting,” Arnett said.

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” said co-op member Bryan Flint, who was at the meeting. “It’s the exact antithesis of what you’d think a co-op would be about.”

Flint estimated about 50 people were in attendance — just about the limit of the room.

The venue was the largest they could find on short notice, Arnett said. The strict entry requirements were to ensure only members were in attendance, given the limited space.

“We have 15,000 members,” Arnett said. “That’s way more people than we can fit in any venue.”

While Miner was live tweeting the meeting with the hashtag #coop253, a co-op employee told her to cease, she said

Arnett said he was concerned that private comments would be made public.

“That’s not a public meeting,” Arnett said.

At that point, the conversation in the room turned more pointed, Miner said.

“That unloaded a whole cascade where people challenged them as to why people were excluded,” Flint said. “We probably spent 30 to 40 minutes where the group took over the meeting, and all this frustration and mistrust and bewilderment over how this meeting was conducted just came flooding out.”

At the end of the meeting, co-op board members sat at tables with members.

Leslie said that while the acrimony of members was palpable, progress was made.

Members told board members that they wanted to see a plan for opening another Tacoma store, and they wanted to know how members would be involved, Flint said.

Central Co-op board chairman Dean DeCrease said in a statement following the meeting, “The passion in the room was so encouraging.”

DeCrease acknowledged and took responsibility for not informing members of the Tacoma location’s demise before it closed.

He also asked for mutual trust.

“We need to support each other and resist the efforts of those who would divide us,” DeCrease said.

He did not elaborate on who those dividers were, but in a later interview DeCrease said he was referring to, “Anyone who is not pulling together for the entire co-op.”

PROGRESS BEING MADE

On Tuesday, the co-op management held another meeting, this one at Urban Grace Church in Tacoma.

This time, only a check-in was required to enter, and no security guards were present.

But when Cooley attempted to enter that meeting, she was stopped by co-op employees who told her she could not attend. She still walked in and remained through the meeting.

Susanna Schultz, the co-op’s marketing director, barred a News Tribune reporter from entering the meeting, stating it was for members of the co-op only.

Missing from the meeting were the majority of the co-op’s 2,300 Tacoma area members, as well as Arnett.

Flint, who attended, estimated about 50 people were in the room.

Two items were on the meeting agenda: where to locate Tacoma’s co-op grocery and what features of a co-op members desire.

“It was pretty obvious the board members don’t know much about Tacoma,” Cooley said. “They were asking a lot of clarifying questions.”

DeCrease called the meeting productive.

Members seemed focused on locating a co-op store in central Tacoma or Hilltop, Cooley said.

“There was a lot of emphasis on food accessibility over profitability.”

Attendees said Tuesday’s meeting, facilitated by board members, was congenial and productive.

Arnett said the co-op will decide after evaluating options.

“It would be very easy to do a lot of harm just by acting fast,” Arnett said.

Arnett will transition between the Sacramento and Seattle co-ops through the end of the year as he continues to lead Central Co-op and work on a Tacoma location.

“We’re fairly committed to having a presence there and making sure people have a store to shop in,” Arnett said. “That’s not changed. I don’t know why anyone would even have a doubt about that.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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