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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 84.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Willy Street Co-op eyes a third store
Madison Library interested in partnering in a Royster Corners venture
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Firszt: 'We consider ourselves neighborhood grocery stores.'
Firszt: 'We consider ourselves neighborhood grocery stores.'
Credit:Timothy Hughes

The managers of the Willy Street Co-op think they've got this expansion thing down.

After opening the successful Willy Street Co-op West in the fall of 2010, they're considering a third store, possibly on the far east side.

"Everyone says the second store is the hardest," says Brendon Smith, the co-op's communications director, referring to the experiences shared in the co-op world.

"When we opened Willy West, we learned a lot of skills," adds general manager Anya Firszt. "The management team was eager to use those skills again. I didn't know anything about construction or real estate, but you pick it up quickly."

Although a third co-op could go anywhere in the city, an east-side store has long been contemplated.

Several locations have been floated, including Union Corners. But recently another possibility emerged: the nascent Royster Corners development at Cottage Grove and Dempsey roads. This also happens to be where the Madison Public Library is contemplating a new 20,000-square-foot Pinney Branch. Both organizations are intrigued by the possibility of collaborating on a venture.

The co-op is now gearing up for a $4 million renovation and expansion at its flagship store on Willy Street, set to begin in late October or early November. But even with the upgrades, Firszt says, that store is maxed out.

"We consider ourselves neighborhood grocery stores," she says. "Ten thousand square feet -- we do that size well."

But, she adds, the next store might break that mold. It could be as large as 20,000 square feet, including a centralized kitchen, office and warehouse space. With the additional location, the co-op hopes to direct some business away from its Willy Street store.

Royster Corners is attractive because it is easily accessible by car, bike and foot and is located in an area where members live. Madison Public Library's interest in the site would be another plus.

The library and the co-op are exploring the possibility of collaborating, perhaps sharing space and programming.

The Meadowridge Library is the first branch to explore such a partnership as it expands into space it will share with the Meadowridge Community Center.

Library executive director Greg Mickells says the library is open to other partnerships, but adds that they must be approached on a case-by-case basis.

"We have to be careful how it's structured," he says. "We need to keep some separation in some way."

But the co-op seems like an ideal partner, he says, with a commitment to community. "I believe a very high percentage of Willy Street Co-op customers are library cardholders as well," Mickells says. "If we're co-located, it would be advantageous to both of us. They have a spirit of education, the same as a library does."

At the end of October, a committee of owners, staff and board members will meet to come up with a recommendation for a new store. Both Union Corners and Royster Corners remain possibilities, and sites elsewhere in the city could emerge, Firszt says.

The committee could have a recommendation by December. If the board approves it, the proposal will go to the co-op's 31,000 members for a vote. If they approve it, the co-op could break ground next summer or fall and open a store in 2015.

The co-op has other big ideas, including one day opening a restaurant and even more stores. Firszt says these decisions will be up to members.

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