Franklin Community Co-op eyes Wilson’s building

  • A mockup design of Green Fields Market in the current Wilson’s Department Store building — sans blue and white facade — created by Northampton-based Thomas Douglas Architects. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A historic image of the current Wilson’s Department Store building. FILE PHOTO

  • Wilson’s Department Store on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

  • Local flowers for sale at Green Fields Market. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The produce section of Green Fields Market. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/3/2020 10:52:08 AM

GREENFIELD — Wilson’s Department Store’s 137-year-old downtown building could soon house the Franklin Community Co-op.

The co-op sent an email to its members Friday morning announcing its plans as part of an “ongoing expansion exploration process,” to move into the Main Street building’s first floor.

“We are currently engaged in negotiating a potential partnership with Kevin O’Neil to occupy the former Wilson’s Department Store space on the ground floor,” the email read.

O’Neil confirmed later Friday morning in an interview that indeed he is in discussions with the co-op, but said he wanted to give its leaders a chance to talk about their plans before he comments further.

As president of the iconic department store, O’Neil announced retirement plans and the anchor retail store’s imminent closure in November after four decades of working in the family-operated business. He became president in 1990, about 10 years after stepping into the business in 1981.

Since then, through the holiday season, the store’s closing sale has been ongoing, although its stock has been greatly depleted over the last month. The five-floor building — floors one, two and three are retail space — is owned in a limited partnership with O’Neil and American House LLC, based in Connecticut.

As a part of the expansion exploration, the co-op will hold a number of open and interactive conversation opportunities for members, staff and the broader community, according to Sarah Kanabay, co-op spokesperson.

The first, which will be held at the co-op’s 170 Main St. space, will be held Jan. 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The meeting and subsequent discussion will cover a recent market study overseen by the co-op; the current state of the co-op and why expansion is warranted; how growth would impact the member-owned co-op; and next steps and how members can participate in the process.

To that end, the co-op intends to add a page to its website on Monday (franklincommunity.coop) that’s dedicated to the expansion plans, according to the email, which notably featured a mockup design image of Green Fields Market in the current Wilson’s building — sans blue and white facade — created by Northampton-based Thomas Douglas Architects.

Based on city records, the Wilson’s property at the corner of Main and Davis streets, completed in 1880, is assessed at $1,440,900 with 85,731 square feet of finished space, including all five levels. Comparatively, Green Field’s Market’s current first-floor space at 144 Main St. is in 8,446 square feet of space.

George Toulumtzis, president of the Franklin Community Co-op’s board, which oversees Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls, said the board, “based on member-owner input, is committed to keeping the co-op in downtown Greenfield, where we can serve the entire community. We’re excited about being in conversation with Mr. O’Neil, and hopeful that the ongoing negotiations will result in an expanded Green Fields Market becoming part of the evolving legacy of Wilson’s landmark retail location.”

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said she thinks the idea is a great one, according to Chief of Staff Danielle Letourneau-Therrien. She said she would love to see a well-established business move into the iconic building.

“Franklin Community Cooperative’s move to the first floor of the Wilson’s Department Store building is an amazing opportunity for the co-op, downtown and the Franklin County community,” Greenfield Business Association Coordinator Rachel Roberts said. “The move perpetuates the co-op’s role as one of downtown’s anchor businesses, helps fill a large vacant storefront that’s emptiness would have had great negative implications for downtown and enables the co-op’s much-needed expansion.”

With the move, Roberts said the co-op will be able to offer more of the fabulous offerings it is already committed to, like its bakery, deli, produce and perishables (dairy, meats, frozen foods); provide more selection and better prices through greater purchasing and storing capacity; offer greater seating and dining options, additional parking and improved accessibility; all while still holding a place of prominence on Main Street.

“The solid occupancy of the vacant first floor of the Wilson’s building opens up the opportunity for others to expand or develop new uses for the other spaces in the building,” she said. “All of this is extremely exciting for downtown. This is a big win and a terrific change to our downtown tapestry.”

Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Diana Syznal said she also thinks it’s a great idea.

“It would be a positive move,” she said. “It would place the well-established co-op in a well-established building, and it would allow not only the co-op to expand, but another business to expand or a new one to come into the current co-op space. There’s comfort in that.”

The Franklin Community Co-op, which began as a buying club, the Montague Food Co-op, opened its first storefront in Turners Falls in 1977. The organization’s website notes that “the original store was run completely by volunteer members, who received a discount on purchases in exchange for their work. Eventually, with funds from a local VISTA program, the co-op hired a manager to coordinate activities at the store and keep it running smoothly. It was during this time that the co-op formally incorporated as the Franklin Community Co-op.”

To accommodate expansion, the co-op moved to Chapman Street in Greenfield in 1987, then to its current space at 144 Main St. in 1993, under the operating name Green Fields Market. A bakery and deli were new additions, according to the website.

These days, the co-op also leases space at Shelburne Falls-based McCusker’s Market, serving Franklin County’s western hilltowns.

The current plans to expand, according to John Williams, general manager of the co-op, is a continuation of its mission to serve Franklin County’s sprawling community.

“As a community-owned market, we are committed to serving the whole community as we consider expansion,” he said. “Our member-owners, our staff, our shoppers, our suppliers and our local farmers have and will continue to inform every step of this process as we work toward a shared vision for our growth as a cooperative. The co-op believes in the future of Greenfield, and we’re excited to build toward this goal together in the coming year.”


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