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Willy Street regroups
Metropolitan Place still possible for second store

More than five years into their still fruitless search for a site for a second store, leaders of the Williamson Street Grocery Co-operative are battle-scarred and disappointed, but fully determined to expand.

The co-op, which has 17,000 members (and expected sales of $17 million this year at its maxed-out east-side store), is regrouping after plans for a downtown store collapsed with the insolvency of the Metropolitan Place condominium project's second phase.

"Right now, we're focusing on this store [at 1221 Williamson St.] and making sure everything is sound," says board president Renee Lauber. "But we're still looking ahead."

"It feels like we're in the driver's seat," asserts general manager Anya Firszt. "We have people knocking on our door, saying please come look at our location for your second store. We're an entity that people want in their development, in their community."

Firszt says two of the original 28 prospective sites are under review, plus a new site. But the most interesting news of all is this: Metropolitan Place could still house the second store now that the project is in the hands of a court-appointed receiver.

"We were a tenant poised to move into that space," Firszt says. "You would think the receiver would see a lot of value in that."

She adds: "Staying is a much cheaper route."

The Willy Street Co-op incurred roughly $725,000 in expenses before terminating the lease in March. This came after the developer - Cliff Fisher and his Buckingham LLC partnership - failed to provide promised funding for site improvements. The new $3.95 million store was scheduled to open last month.

Much of those expenses are site-specific: contractor work, equipment, design specifications. Firszt says some of the money can be recovered through vendor renegotiations and equipment resale, but she feels resuming construction under new leasing terms would be the best financial outcome for both the co-op and the court-appointed receiver, who is representing the banks that Buckingham failed to repay.

"Having an anchor tenant like us would help them sell their condo units," says Firszt. "But we don't know if we can close the gap on what we want to pay and what they will accept."

In the meantime, the co-op is putting its financial house in order. Lauber says co-op is "not at all" in financial jeopardy. But with the second store in limbo, the co-op has cut back on staffing.

Willy Street also plans to file a claim against Buckingham, though Lauber and Firszt aren't optimistic that any money will be recovered.

Lauber, as board president, says she's satisfied that the board exercised due diligence in overseeing the aborted expansion. "I don't think there's anything else the management team could have done," she says.

Longtime member Brian Mink begs to differ. He's peppered the co-op's message board with detailed criticism and demanded an independent investigation. There's no evidence yet that his concerns are widespread. Two informational meetings on the failed site have drawn a turnout of six people.

The busted deal is the co-op's second collision with the rough and tumble development world. Earlier, the co-op backed out of talks with the Monroe Commons condo developers, but not before the developers had used the prospect of Willy Street's tenancy as bait for a $2.3 million city subsidy. Trader Joe's wound up in the subsidized west-side space, and Willy Street turned to the downtown and Metropolitan Place, where once again it found itself a pawn in someone else's game.

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