Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: If Central Co-op wants to regain Tacoma’s trust, start by showing up

Staff photographer

The shock, for some, has faded. The disbelief subsided.

But the unanswered questions remain, and the sense of betrayal still feels palpable to many.

On Tuesday, according to Chrissy Cooley, one of the folks behind the Friends of the Co-op Facebook page, roughly 150 people gathered at the former Epworth LeSourd United Methodist Church to discuss how to move forward after the sudden and unexpected closure July 18 of The Central Co-op on Sixth Avenue.

“I was just really happy when we walked away,” Cooley told me Thursday when I asked how the meeting had gone. “It doesn’t feel good to be surprised this suddenly, but I think we made the best of something kind of gross. I’m just really proud of Tacoma.”

Cooley described the meeting as one where progress was made, at least in coming to terms with the loss of the Sixth Avenue co-op location — an idealistic shopping outpost built on a dedication to local farms and smart eating.

She said the meeting had a neighborhood feel, and the group was focused on organizing for the future and finding a path forward.

That doesn’t mean raw feelings have all been eased.

The problem is, the communication has been extremely poor. As a co-op member, I have an expectation of better communication.

Longtime Tacoma food co-op member Bryan Flint

The Seattle-based Central Co-op, which merged with and took over Tacoma’s independent food co-op in December, has promised to open a new South Sound location, but the abrupt manner with which the Tacoma co-op closed, with no advance notice to members or employees, sparked skepticism and anger.

And while Cooley says Dan Arnett, the president and CEO of Central Co-op, was invited to attend, no one from the Central Co-op showed up. Cooley says Arnett has offered to meet with her one-on-one, though at this point no date has been set.

On Tuesday, the notable absence of representatives from the Central Co-op didn’t help quell the tension in Tacoma.

“The problem is, the communication has been extremely poor,” said long-time co-op member Bryan Flint, who was there as a concerned community member, not in his roles as the executive director of the Greater Metro Parks Foundation and or member of the Tacoma Public Utility board.

“As a coop member,” Flint continued, “I have an expectation of better communication.”

I’ve already written about the unfortunate circumstances that led to the abrupt closure of the Sixth Avenue co-op location — including the impersonal negotiations tactics the Central Co-op employed, and the take-it-or-leave-it five-year lease ultimatum the building’s owner, John Loesch, described to me as “a game of chicken” that “didn’t work.”

It’s clear both sides shoulder some of the blame for allowing it to come to this point.

But it’s also clear that the lack of communication — as Flint noted — and the absence of advance notice is going to be hard for many Tacoma co-op members to overcome.

“The economics weren’t there for this space,” Robert More, who was president of the Tacoma Food Co-op board at the time of the December’s merger, told the crowd Tuesday.

As he defended the Central Co-op’s decision and put the situation in context, he was met with occasional shouts from the largely well-behaved crowd of “Where are they?”

Still, More persisted: “We are going to be back, bigger, better and stronger, and that’s because there’s a real commitment from the people up at Central. “I know we want answers, and we want them now, but I would ask for some patience. I really think that the best thing we can do is remember that we are a community.”

We are going to be back, bigger, better and stronger, and that’s because there’s a real commitment from the people up at Central. I know we want answers, and we want them now, but I would ask for some patience. I really think that the best thing we can do is remember that we are a community.

Robert More, former president of the Tacoma Food Co-op board

Cooley said the meeting succeeded in developing a list of unanswered questions she hopes Tacoma’s co-op membership will get answers to. They include: How long did the Central Co-op know a closure was imminent? Why wasn’t the Tacoma membership notified sooner? Where is the Central Co-op specifically looking for a new location? And will Tacoma members be allowed to provide input on this decision?

Those all sound reasonable to me. While it’s understandable that some aspects of the decision and the search for a new location can’t be made public, it sure feels as if even a small public gesture toward transparency would go a long way. Online overtures and blog posts aren’t going to cut it.

Whatever happens, at this point it doesn’t look like there’s much appetite for launching a new independent co-op movement in Tacoma. It’s understandable, given the years of hard work that went into forming the storefront we just lost.

“Tacoma’s done this once, actually twice, and we’re exhausted,” Cooley said of the prospect of starting from scratch. “I think everyone’s just tired, and doesn’t have it in them to start it a third time. Central may be our best option.”

“I’ve got some suggestion on how they could re-establish trust,” she continued.

Me too, and most of them start with the Central Co-op being more open than they’ve been with Tacoma up until this point.

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