Innovation Ecosystem

A tale of bottom up innovation and enterprise

Celebrating Rhode Island’s first member-owned, retail grocery store in Providence, and what it means for the neighborhood

Photo by Richard Asinof

Celebrating Urban Greens Co-op Market on International Co-op Day, the first community-owned retail market in Rhode Island, with more than 1,500 members.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/15/19
The opening of Urban Greens Co-op Market as a customer-owned enterprise in the West End of Providence offers an example of bottom-up innovation and enterprise succeeding at the neighborhood level.
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PROVIDENCE – There were no TV cameras, no radio microphones, no reporters [save for ConvergenceRI] attending the ribbon cutting at the Urban Greens Market, located at 93 Cranston St., the gateway to the West End, to celebrate Rhode Island’s only member-owned grocery store open to all shoppers, as part of a worldwide 25th annual International Co-Ops Day, on a steamy hot Thursday afternoon, July 11.

No doubt it will be much different scene this week for the festivities planned for the opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex on Wednesday, July 17, where there promises to be a gaggle of news media, elected officials, legislative leaders, economic development dignitaries and corporate executives, all crowing about growing the economic engine that is the innovation economy in Rhode Island as a prime destination for talent and venture capital.

If Wexford is an example of top-down innovation at the corporate level, Urban Greens Market is bottom-up innovation at the neighborhood level. The question is: where do they meet and collide? Will the new chief marketing officer at CommerceRI, Heather Evans, feature both enterprises prominently in how the state is marketed?

The story of Urban Greens – a member-owed co-op business with some 1,547 members and growing – is, for the most part, an unheralded piece of the economic jigsaw puzzle that is Rhode Island. In addition to Urban Greens being the sole commercial tenant, the property is part of a mixed-use development that includes 30 residential units, with six reserved for affordable housing.

The members/owners of Urban Greens vote on policies and receive special in-store discounts, not unlike Amazon Prime members at Whole Foods. Qualified low-income members receive a 5 percent discount on all items.

Home grown

More than a third of the investment financing for the Urban Greens project, which is expected to generate 28 full-time and part-time jobs, came from families and individuals. The other two-thirds came in the form of grants and loans from foundations [The Rhode Island Foundation, the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, and The Cooperative Fund of New England] and government agencies such as CommerceRI, including $2.7 million in Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits, $237,000 in a small business loan, and another $271,000 in sales and use tax abatements.

All the speakers at the July 11 ceremony praised the community-driven, customer-owned Urban Greens Co-Op Market.

• For Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, “creation of a community” is what Urban Greens was all about.

The context of cooperative, Elorza said, “is where we are in it together, we literally own it together. It’s such a big contrast to what we hear on TV, social media, and at the national level right now – the idea that we’re all in it for ourselves, that we’re in it alone, and that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. We all seem to be angry, we all seem to be at each other’s throats and necks all the time.”

At Urban Greens, at the local level, Elorza continued, “We see that there’s a different force at play. I see neighborhoods continuing to come together to find common ground, to find common projects.”

Elorza said that he had grown up in this neighborhood. “I grew up right on Cranston Street, several blocks down. When I was in high school, I walked down this street every single day,” recalling the former abandoned site, covered with graffiti. “You’d see it everyday, and you’d grow complacent, over time.” Instead, Elorza saw Urban Greens as a forceful way to break out of that complacency. “We need people with vision, who say, we should demand better.”

Urban Greens Co-op Market, Elorza concluded, brings the community together around bringing healthy, fresh food to what was, not so long ago, a food desert.

For Providence City Councilor Rachel Miller, Urban Greens is a connection to a different kind of ownership, where the store is community-owned. “The people who work here are also working to help make decisions and to build a [democratic] culture along side other member owners.

• For Brett Smiley, chief of staff for Gov. Gina Raimondo, Urban Greens was a chance to advocate on behalf of perpetuation of the economic development tools in her toolbox, where the store is an example of what it is going to take to rebuild the state’s economy.

“Supporting the entire food ecosystem,” Smiley said, “was one of the key components of the state’s Brookings Institution study five years ago,” as well as one of the highlights of the mayor’s economic development program. Smiley pointed to the Farm Fresh hub and the Gotham Greens growing space now under construction as examples of the work being done.

For Philip Trevvett, one of the Urban Greens council members, “Co-ops empower communities through ownership.” That ownership, he explained, ensures community accountability. “It means that the store’s profits are not going to a headquarters or a CEO, much less one in another state or even another country. The profits are staying and circulating here in the community.”

Cooperative ownership, community ownership, Trevvett continued, “means that the store is accountable to community members, creating good jobs, and that it is supporting the health and well being of neighborhoods surrounding [Urban Greens].”

For Raul Figueroa, a community organizer with Fuerza Laboral, a grassroots workers' center located in Central Falls, the message for Urban Greens was tied to the theme of this year’s International Co-ops Day: Co-ops for decent work.”

“It’s pretty straight forward; it can’t get any more real than that,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa worked with workers to help them create the Healthy Planet Cleaning Cooperative in Central Falls [the first employee cooperative to be incorporated under Rhode Island law]. “We are looking to create at least six more worker-owned businesses in the next 10 years,” Figueroa said. “But we can’t do it alone.” With that, he turned around and asked Elorza if he would meet his group; the mayor agreed.

For the two representatives from the R.I. Center for Employee Ownership, the importance of Urban Greens was its egalitarian, democratic model: “One worker, one share, one vote; it is the democratic way of managing a business.”

The other important message to take away was: “Equity creates more health, inequity creates bad health.”

The major determinants of our health and well being, they continued, “is where we live, learn, work and play. If we’re living in a community that’s got cooperative establishments, it is going to be a healthier community. It’s about jobs and occupations and opportunities you want to create, with working conditions and working environments that promote democracy and equity.”

In terms of economic sustainability, the numbers related to workers in co-ops reinforced that messaging, according to the news release plugging the event. A study of food co-ops and their members in the Northeast found that the average wage was 18 percent higher than in other food and beverage stores in the same states. In addition, food co-ops had lower staff turnover [36 percent] when compared to supermarkets [59 percent] and more staff employed full-time [63 percent] compared to 43 percent in supermarkets.

Start spreading the news
Amy Moses, the vice president and Rhode Island director of the Conversation Law Foundation, tweeted out on Sunday: “Inaugural trip to@urbangreensprov & got my membership care. Yeah no plastic check-out bags. Thank you @RIFoundation for helping to make the vision a reality.”

For information about how to become a member, go to https://urbangreens.com/membership/.

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