ESSEX JUNCTION -- Residents of Essex Junction are hungry for organically grown fruits and veggies, free-range meats, Vermont-made food products and other specialty items like the ones sold at City Market in Burlington. So much so, in fact, that the town of Essex Junction has approached City Market to see if it's interested in opening a second store in the village.
"It's really exciting for us, because it's coming from the grassroots," says Jodi Harrington, City Market's marketing and community-relations manager. "We're really flattered to be seen this way."
The Onion River Co-op, which operates the community-owned City Market, has about 200 members living in the greater Essex area, including about 120 in Essex Junction itself, according to Meredith O'Neill, City Market's director of human resources. She says the store is financially "in a good place right now" where it can seriously consider such an expansion.
Essex Junction has been without a downtown supermarket ever since the A&P pulled up stakes in 2002. Recently, the Grand Union on Susie Wilson Road announced that it's closing its doors at the end of the month. Over the winter, two public meetings were held in Essex Junction to gauge community interest in opening a "Village Market" -- a cooperative-style health and specialty-foods grocery modeled after City Market -- in town.
Both public meetings were well-attended and revealed strong community support. As a result, the town of Essex Junction commissioned a $9900 market feasibility study on the idea. That study, funded largely by a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that there is a "significant opportunity" for a specialty/natural food store to do well in downtown Essex Junction.
The market study, conducted by location research consultant Peter C. Davis of Port Townsend, Washington, also found that "the opportunity for a specialty/natural food store is significantly greater than for a conventional supermarket." A standard supermarket of 30,000 to 50,000 square feet would face significant competition -- there are already seven such stores within 3.5 miles of downtown Essex Junction. However, a smaller, natural-foods specialty market could capture a "relatively strong share" of the area's consumer-grocery dollars, estimated at $94.5 million annually.
Moreover, the demographics of Essex Junction are conducive to supporting a niche specialty-foods store, the study showed. The greater Essex area has a large percentage of college-educated residents, white-collar workers and two-income households. The town is also home to IBM, the largest private employer in Vermont.
Charles Safford, Essex Junction town manager, says he's thrilled that there's an obvious "market for the Market." He believes that many of his fellow residents would prefer to do their food shopping at a smaller, locally owned grocery than at a big-box supermarket.
"There's a large group of people in this community who are increasingly conscious about what they put into their bodies, and would just as soon not have to take their global positioning systems with them to the grocery store," he says.
Safford also says that a City Market-type store would offer the village a number of advantages over a conventional supermarket, such as "the multiplier effect" of re-circulating money within the community. It has the potential, as well, to provide the village with a sense of place, an identity and a focal point where people can gather.
"City Market has a social mission to enrich the lives in the community that they serve," he adds. "Their mission goes beyond the monetary transaction."
Locations being considered include the Essex Junction Shopping Center on Pearl Street and 34 Park Street on Route 2A, site of the old Flanders Lumber yard. Both are privately owned and would not require the kind of public-private partnership that City Market did. According to the market survey, a specialty/natural-foods store would do well at either location, with an annual sales potential of $8.8 million within three years of opening.
O'Neill at City Market emphasizes that the proposal has not yet been formally presented to the Onion River Co-op board of directors, which is expected to discuss the matter at its April 24 meeting. In addition, the decision to open a second store would require approval by the majority of the co-op's 2300 members.