The Astoria Co-op Grocery broke ground Friday on a new 7,500-square-foot store at 23rd Street and Marine Drive it hopes to open by Thanksgiving.
The natural foods store, located in the Shark Rock Building in downtown Astoria, has been planning the expansion to Mill Pond since 2014, when membership numbered nearly 3,000. Since then, membership has climbed to more than 4,100.
The new store will cost an estimated $9 million to build, said Matt Stanley, the co-op’s general manager. The co-op’s portion is approximately $4 million. Another $5 million is coming from property owner Astor Venture LLC, which gave the co-op a 20-year lease.
“In eight weeks, we raised over $1.6 million in the fall of 2017,” Stanley told a crowd gathered for the groundbreaking. “That was the big equity push that we needed to actually get here today.”
Grading on the site will begin Monday. Work will begin on the foundation within a couple of weeks.
The site is subject to liquefaction, requiring rock piers 20 feet down, and a dam around the project to prevent the store from sliding in an earthquake, said Don Vallaster, an architect and partner in Astor Venture. Vallaster expects the foundation work to be completed by the end of February before crews start pouring concrete.
The project has faced several hurdles, from fundraising to appeasing neighborhood concerns over access. A proposed entrance on the narrower Steam Whistle Way faced opposition from neighbors worried it would snarl traffic, endanger safety and hurt property values.
Access was changed to 23rd Street, and the two sides reached a compromise before an appeal of the project reached the Astoria City Council.
The co-op has touted the new location as an opportunity to build a more efficient, dedicated grocery store expanding its selection of products, including a deli and more local produce and meat. The site will include 48 parking spaces and a loading dock unavailable at the cramped Shark Rock Building location.
The expansion will increase the co-op’s impact on the local economy, including adding the equivalent of about 30 additional full-time positions to an existing 20, each with an average wage of $16 an hour and benefits, Stanley said.
“This is truly a grassroots project,” he said. “It’s not unlike 45 years ago, when a small group of people came together to build something, a small storefront, to provide something that none of them as individuals could do.”
The co-op began as a buying club among locals who would travel to Portland and bring products back to the house of former Clatsop County Commissioner Peter Huhtala. The nonprofit House of Many Waves, led by Huhtala, provided the seed money to open the Community Store, the grocer’s first location in the present-day Columbian Cafe on Marine Drive in 1974.
In the 1980s, the store transitioned to ownership by a cooperative of workers. By 1989, it had moved to the corner suite of the Norblad Building, most recently home to the Deja Vu Thrift Store.
The transition from a nonprofit into a true cooperative began in the early 2000s, according to Stewart Bell, one of the original co-founders of the store. The co-op looked to expand in downtown and was offered a chance to buy the former Ocean Crest car dealership at 16th and Exchange streets. But the store ultimately moved in the late 2000s into the Shark Rock Building owned by business partners Paul Caruana and Brian Faherty.
The co-op’s expansion comes as several national grocery chains move to the North Coast.
Natural Grocers opened a new location last year in the Youngs Bay Plaza in Warrenton. Variety store Dollar General recently opened a new location in Gearhart, along with an unsuccessful attempt at an Astoria store across 23rd Street from the co-op’s site. A development company behind Grocery Outlet was recently approved to build an 18,000-square-foot location in Seaside, but is appealing the requirement of a new left-turn lane on U.S. Highway 101.
Stanley sees the co-op’s expansion as a survival tactic in a new paradigm where natural foods are a highly competitive market.
“I think in a way we really have to do this,” he said. “Co-ops in the country that aren’t adapting and evolving are struggling a lot.”