By Phyl Newbeck
For The Essex Reporter
Originally set to close on Dec. 6, the proprietors of the Underhill Country Store have decided to keep the doors open while they await a change in ownership.
After a flurry of meetings, a community group has emerged with a goal of turning the iconic institution into a co-op. Less than a week before the proposed closing date, Kyle Clark of Underhill created a crowd-sourcing website and over the span of a few days, enough money was raised to send a Letter of Intent to the owners. To date, a total of $48,000 has been raised for the co-op, with additional funds for the purchase of the real estate.
Although the funds raised are still shy of the $325,000 purchase price, owners Peter and Nancy Davis are keeping the store open while the co-op group continues to raise money and puts together a business plan. Peter Davis is hoping everything can be wrapped up by the end of January, but says he is excited by how quickly things have fallen into place. Even though his retirement plans have been delayed, he thinks all parties have reached the best possible outcome. “This continues our hard work at the store,” he said. “It hands the baton off to some folks who are really connected to the community and who understand the importance of the store.”
At this point, no one is quite sure what form the new venture will take. A survey that was circulated online and at the store showed a number of respondents in favor of turning the business into a bistro or café, while others yearned for a high-quality butcher shop. Clark said he realizes these details will have to be addressed but considers it more important to get everyone on board to make the purchase.
The store has been on the market since January, but it was only after the Davises posted their retirement intentions on a local online board that the community sprang into action.
Scott Tower of Underhill convened two meetings in November, which were attended by residents hoping to find a way to ensure that the 130-year-old store at the corner of River and Pleasant Valley Roads would remain open. He invited Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont to the second meeting to discuss other cooperative ventures across the state. It was during that meeting that Clark stepped forward and offered to put together his crowd-sourcing website.
Clark has divided the fundraising into two entities — one for the purchase of the inventory and equipment and a second for the purchase of the real estate. Individuals were invited to purchase $250 common shares in the co-op or preferred shares which are deemed “impact investments.” The real estate will be held as a partnership and the co-op will lease the building with the right to purchase it if they choose to.
Nominations are being sought for co-op members to serve on a seven-person Board of Directors. Peter Davis continues to have a considerable financial stake in the store, so he has been appointed to a seat, as has Cindy Stotz, who is the primary financier of the real estate purchase. Five additional members will be elected via an online ballot. Once formed, the Board of Directors will ratify a set of bylaws and choose a general manager for their enterprise. The store has already received its Certificate of Incorporation as the Mansfield Community Cooperative, Inc. They are hoping to complete the purchase on January 15, 2016.
There’s a lot that is changing, but one thing will stay the same. The name “Underhill Country Store” has been purchased together with the assets. With any luck, the iconic establishment will stick around for another 130 years.
Those interested in contributing to the purchase should visit designbook.com/app/investments/185