Food Co-op didn't consult with this owner

When I read that the Co-op wanted to have the City Council change the drive-thru windows law so that it could expand its parking facilities, at first I thought the idea sounded pretty good, since I'm a very frequent shopper there and, when I drive, there's often a need to wait a few minutes for a parking space to free up. But then, I started considering the issues in greater depth while reflecting on some other concerns I have about the Co-op.

First, a bit of disclosure: I am a Co-op "owner." Therefore, technically, I'm one of the people asking for this city policy change, although in actuality, the first I learned about it was through an article in the Daily Tidings. So, considering that proprietary status, I was led to the thought that the Co-op was making a pretty big decision on my behalf and I, along with the many hundreds of other owners, had never been consulted on whether we were in accord with such a bold move. This, then, led me to the question of what it might mean to be a Co-op owner.

Some years ago, I became an owner-member by depositing a couple hundred dollars and, ever since, I receive some discount coupons every couple of months, a bimonthly newsletter, the opportunity once a year to vote for some board member candidates picked by who knows what process, and an annual token dividend that typically represents one-half of the amounts "earned" by me, based on the total of my purchases during the prior year (The other half, the board seems to almost always decide, is in my best interest to be retained by the institution for whatever future purposes "we," us owners, who, to reiterate, never are asked for our opinions on such matters, decide to use it for — such things as, presumably, buying neighboring bank properties and expanding parking facilities). So, this parking question and the issues surrounding it got me to ponder, as I've already indicated, what it means to be one of the owners of that institution. And, the answer seems to me to be, not much. My sense is that I'm just another customer who happens to receive a little bit of a discount on my purchases in exchange for lending the co-op my 200 bucks.

Another thought that came to mind with this parking question has to do with the alleged "mission" of the Co-op. From my understanding of the fundamental nature of such institutions and the theory behind the co-op movement in general, as well as from the image that the Co-op has taken some pains to promote about itself, it's supposed to have a calling several degrees above that of mere commercialism — a furthering of higher ideals relative to the consumers, owners or otherwise, and to the broader society.

These thoughts, then, led to two questions directly related to the parking issue. One was, what would I advocate as an owner, in the unlikely event that I would ever be asked for such an opinion? The other was, why were the alternate suggestions, in particular the ones that advocated socially-constructive solutions, coming entirely from people outside of the Co-op hierarchy, rather than from the supposedly socially conscious, alternative, highly principled Co-op itself, ones such as opening another location to serve another part of town and thus reduce auto usage for people who now drive back and forth to the current site, or keeping the focus on the original high-minded, visionary intent of the ordinance in question, which was to promote a more pedestrian-friendly, less gas-guzzling town, or coming up with innovative solutions that would encourage people to find alternative means (walking, biking, carpooling, etc.) of doing some of their shopping, and so on?

In short, I'm left with the sense that the board and the management have a single-minded focus — one in line with what most profit-seeking, commercial enterprises might pursue, i.e., attempting to facilitate more people getting into the store and making more purchases.

In order to check on whether I happened to be in some sort of misguided bubble of my own making, I checked with a few other owner-friends and found that I'm hardly alone in my impressions. Among them (an admittedly limited sampling) there was a fairly uniform sense, based on a variety of experiences they've had over the years, that the Co-op's self-promoting, socially conscious image is substantially façade — that the bottom line is the bottom line and, additionally, that the ideal of cooperative democracy is virtually, if not entirely, non-existent.

Dan Wertheimer lives in Ashland.

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