After the Fire – Big Decisions That Still Resonate, 25 Years Later
By Dan Hoffman, Council Member and (GreenStar Historian)

As noted in the January GreenLeaf, 2017 is the 25-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed GreenStar’s store on Cayuga and Farm Streets, and the Co-op’s determined effort to rise again, from the ashes. Here’s another look back at that definitive moment for GreenStar and our community, and some post-fire decisions that changed the course of the Co-op’s evolution.

About six months prior to the January 1992 fire, following a Council election, it was time to select officers for the coming year, including the President. Back then, the position was largely a figurehead one, light on responsibilities. Nevertheless, no one was stepping forward. Then Michael Richter, who had just been elected for the first time, spoke up. “Well, I guess I could do it; how hard could it be?” Little did he (or we) know. … Fortunately for the Co-op, Michael lost his job around the time of the fire, and he threw himself completely into the task of pressing Council to focus, think carefully and strategically, and take a leadership role in doing whatever it took to establish a new store. Thank you, Michael, wherever you are now.

An early objective was to maintain a sense of continuity and hope among Co-op stakeholders. GreenLeaf had to keep coming out (including some Extra! editions), the staff – — who were paid for a while through insurance – — needed a place to work (so office space in the Women’s Community Building was rented), Council had to keep meeting (but more often – — usually once a week), and members needed a place to mingle and commiserate and buy some of their favorite Co-op products (so a weekly “mini-market” was arranged at the gymnasium in the former Henry St. John School). T-shirts were produced that featured a version of what was then GreenStar’s logo – — the universal “tree of life” – — except that in this case the tree had been cut down. But, a new sprout was emerging from the stump, and the shirt proclaimed that “Our Roots Are Strong.”

Ironically, in the year or two before the fire, debate was already brewing at the Co-op, about whether a larger store was desirable. Suddenly, the question was unavoidable. Within days, a survey was made available to members, and 550 responded; of those, 460 wanted the Co-op to find a new store that was two to three times larger than the former 2400-square-foot space. A Real Estate Committee was formed, and quickly identified six potential buildings that might be rented, ranging from 2650 to 10,000 square feet, including three on West State or West Seneca Street, one on the Commons (the former Rite Aid drug store), a former hardware store on Hancock Street and the former Payless supermarket, at W. Seneca & and Fulton Streets.

Eventually, the options had been narrowed down to the Hancock Street site (5,000 sq. ft.) and the former supermarket (10,200 sq. ft. — – before a section was subsequently sliced off, to widen Buffalo Street). After much debate, Council decided that the larger building was the better choice, and the question of whether to rent it was put to the Membership, as the Bylaws require. Many bemoaned the lack of bicycle and pedestrian-friendliness of the site. Perhaps under-appreciated then (from a business standpoint) was its location literally at the crossroads of Ithaca’s primary east-west and AND north-south travel routes. In any case, it was May by then, and folks were getting anxious, which may have helped account for the lopsided vote – — 363 in favor, 19 opposed. Compared to what the Co-op was used to, the “new” space seemed huge – — and it needed a lot of work.

Before the fire, most of the Co-op’s employees were in a “Management management Collectivecollective,” with equalized salaries, and all employees had contracts (as opposed to being “at will“). ”). Consultants helping GreenStar, post-fire, advocated for a more conventional, hierarchical management structure, with a General Manager (GM) at the top, and a majority of the Collective collective endorsed that approach. Council asked the Membership Meeting for permission to make the switch, which was granted, but only for a 10-month trial period (after which it was made “permanent“). Art Godin, a member of the Collectivecollective, was chosen as the first GM, and he firmly and calmly shepherded the mostly-new staff into having the store ready to open in September – — eight months after it burned down. At the same time, Council took their consultants’ advice to dispense with employment contracts, and instead use an extensive personnel policy, which (still) sets forth employees’ rights and benefits, in detail, and empowers an elected Staff Advisory Board to interface among workers, management, and Council.
A much larger store would need to sell more, which dove-tailed with a long-standing push for GreenStar to be more “welcoming.” Since its launch in 1971, the Co-op functioned (mostly) as a member-only enterprise, with cashiers instructed to tell curious non-members, “Well, you can shop once, but if you want to come back after that you‘re supposed to become a member.” In July, Council asked the Membership Meeting to allow non-members to shop, “at a higher price than members.” This was approved, and Council then decided to place a 2% -percent surcharge on all purchases by non-members. Before long, the new GM convinced Council that this approach created confusion and awkwardness at check-out, and the Co-op switched to a 2% -percent discount for members. (Over time, some came to view this automatic discount as fiscally inadvisable, and later this year members will be asked, again, to decide whether to drop it, in favor of a patronage refund system.)

Another change advocated by some, to boost sales and attract new shoppers, was expansion of GreenStar’s product line. For 20 years, the Co-op had avoided selling meat, but member referenda conducted shortly after the new store opened saw the approval of poultry (“as close to free-range and organic as possible”) and fish (“as close to organically raised and in as natural an environment as possible”). At the same time, members rejected selling alcohol, pet food, or food in aseptic packaging. (Since 1992, there have been seven other referenda on the perennial issue of meat, more than any other subject.)

As you can see, the dramatic events of a quarter-century ago transformed GreenStar to a degree unlike any other point in its history —- and the effects are still being felt. Watching the flames and then the wrecking ball eradicate the Co-op’s cozy Fall Creek home was devastating and demoralizing, but, in fact, our roots are ARE strong, and tenacious. Thanks to the tireless work of a dedicated staff and board, and the support and help of committed members (including tens of thousands of dollars in generous loans), the Co-op took a leap of faith that has led it over some bumpy stretches and into a role of community prominence and leadership that few would have imagined, 25 years ago. Let’s celebrate!

Check out this YouTube video of the fire