UPTOWN — The deadline to submit proposals to occupy the hot Gerber Building at the base of the renovated Wilson Station hasn't hit yet, but one contender, a co-op grocery store called the Chicago Market, is already rallying for support from residents — and secured a strong endorsement from the alderman at a community meeting Wednesday.
About 75 fans of the customer-owned grocery store — which has nearly 900 equally-invested owners, including Ald. James Cappleman (46th) — showed up in force to a meeting Wednesday night at Chase Park Theater, 4701 N. Ashland Ave., where neighbors were invited to discuss possible tenants for the site.
Cappleman said he was proud to have joined the co-op as its 500th member at a recent Buena Park Neighbors meeting, and said Wednesday that their interest in the site had his complete support, even vowing to present their plans to Mayor Rahm Emanuel himself.
"I’d love to see it happen," Cappleman said, praising the co-op grocery model, which he said could help make the neighborhood a "destination."
"It really celebrates the diversity. There's a very strong social justice component to it."
The market offers two forms of membership for one-time contributions of either $250 or $500, according to Chicago Market's website, and payment plans are also available.
Members and non-members alike can shop the store's selection of sustainably-farmed produce, meat and dairy products, along with dry goods, bulk foods, frozen foods, wine, beer and liquor. Members have access to discounts, a share of year-end profits, and the opportunity to serve as board members and direct the co-op's operation and growth.
The only other contender for the site at this time, according to Cappleman, is Popeye's, the former tenant of the Wilson Station building that was ousted by the construction project, but more proposals are expected before the June 9 deadline set by the CTA. Site visits for interested investors are scheduled for Thursday, according to the CTA schedule.
Can Chicago Market Swing It?
Jeff Tolman, a CTA spokesman, said that the transit agency has "received interest from a wide range of retailers" but said they don't disclose the names or number of respondents before the deadline to keep the process "competitive."
"We are looking for a long-term developer or retailer with a concept that will complement the Uptown neighborhood and the investment that CTA is making in the Wilson Station," Tolman told DNAinfo Thursday, adding the final decision will also be based off "each respondent’s experience, financial qualifications and price."
That may mean an uphill battle for the Chicago Market co-op, which for now relies on pop-up shops in temporary spaces to connect with its members and potential new customers.
"It’s going to be a struggle because of the cost per square foot," Cappleman conceded, in reference to the high-priced lease anticipated for the site. "But I like it because it draws in the community," he said.
"You could say it’s risky, but some times good things are worth taking a risk on," Cappleman added.
There is only one open co-op in the city with a brick-and-mortar location that can serve as a model for Chicago Market. Dill Pickle Food, which occupies a 1,300-square-foot store at 3039 W. Fullerton Ave. recently announced plans to move to a much larger location at 2746 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Dill Pickle's $3.5 million project, which was funded largely by its members, was announced in 2015, but was pushed back a few times as the co-op tried to raise more money. Its now aiming for a late August opening.
At 10,000-square-feet, Dill Pickle's new home will be six times as big as its old one on Fullerton. The Gerber Building, in contrast, is 13,239 squre feet.
In Dill Pickle's first fiscal year of operation, the store grossed $1.3 million in sales, which was nearly twice what it had projected it would gross by its fifth year.
Years In The Making
In March 2013, Greg Berlowitz started plans to build Chicago Market, asking neighbors to sketch their dreams for a co-op grocery store on paper-covered walls in the Chase Park Fieldhouse.
At the meeting, they mapped out the Chicago Market's mission, and soon after they created a steering committee to make it happen, he said.
"A year after that meeting, we incorporated as a co-op and we opened it up to the public. In 2014, we ran our campaign and hit 600 donors that summer," Berlowitz said at Wednesday night's meeting.
Since then, the co-op's owners have volunteered for a number of committees to make the market a reality, including marketing, grocer logistics procurement, ownership growth efforts and funding management. In the last year, they formed a site committee, which was fortuitously up and running when the Gerber Building talks began, he said.
"For the past year, we’ve looked at 60 sites. Some of them have been terrific and disappeared, some of them have sort of languished as our criteria went up or down. This is one that really stuck," Berlowitz said of the Gerber building.
The co-op's membership has climbed in recent weeks, topping 900 member in a surge over the last few days, Berlowitz said. Still, the group hopes for more growth. In July 2014, the co-op was hoping to reach 1,000 members by September 2014.
Berlowitz said they hope a central location like the Gerber Building will help them reach potential members in Uptown and beyond.
"More than any other business, we believe that people will travel to our co-op. We believe that people from Albany Park, Edgewater, Rogers Park, Andersonville, Roscoe Village [and] Lakeview will come to Chicago Market. And we know people in those neighborhoods are already owners," said Berlowitz, of Rogers Park.
"We have the most community support. We have 921 owners. 1,500 people signed our petition," Berlowitz said. The group was seeking petition signatures at Wednesday's meeting, too.
"We have more than 100 organizations we worked with already. And we have the alderman supporting us as well, so we think we’re a terrific fit for this space."
If the co-op does acquire the space, it would take about a year to open. The CTA anticipates the location being available in early 2018.
Owning A Place In Uptown
Sofia Jouravel, who attended Wednesday's meeting as a supporter, was owner number 55 in the co-op. Her passion for food even changed her career path, trading a job in the pharmaceutical industry for one in the sustainable food industry.
She recently went back for her master's degree in public health because she was "so in love" with the sustainable food movement, she said.
"I’m very passionate about food in general from a variety of perspectives: from a historical perspective, from a cultural perspective, from a blogging perspective, but also from a sustainability perspective, and what it does to bring communities together," Jouravel said.
While she currently lives in the Loop, she said if she ever leaves Downtown it would be to move to the North Side, in part thanks to the community she has built with her fellow co-op members.
"Before we open a store, we’re a community" she said. "I love the fact that I found so many people who were on the same page and value the same things and choose to spend their disposable income the same way by being a part of this community, organizing events and organizing each other."
While four years might seem like a long time without a storefront, it is right on schedule, according to national co-op organizations, she said.
Currently an "active volunteer," Jouravel has dedicated several hours every evening for the last few weeks to the developing the market, and said she knows many other volunteers doing the same, she said.
"Our foot is on the gas because we are not hired. We have full time jobs, and then we come home and we spend Friday nights and Saturday mornings and all kinds of day working on Chicago Market," Jouravel said.
"It's not work because we love the work. We love engaging with each other on this. And the common goal is so amazing that it's totally worth the effort. I mean what’s the alternative? Watching Netflix?"