On a Saturday morning in early May, most of the seats are filled in the main theater at the Esquire in Clifton. Participants have come most of all to hear details of the ambitious plan to open an “uptrend” nonprofit cooperative grocery in 22,000 square feet of commercial space on Ludlow. “We’re Clifton Market,” say the signs. “And so are hundreds of your neighbors.”
Three years ago, Keller’s IGA at 319 Ludlow shut down without warning, with some $215,000 worth of inventory locked inside; the owner owed about $200,000 in taxes and penalties. Never mind that the store had been a high volume market. Poof. The neighborhood lost its most valuable commercial anchor and a piece of its heart. In its place it gained an ugly maw in the middle of its main drag. You don’t know what it means to have a neighborhood grocery store—a place where neighbors run into one another, a place you can walk to—until you lose it. The loss has hurt shops and restaurants up and down Ludlow.
“Weekends have been as good as ever for us,” says Ludlow Wines owner Mike Anagnostou. But weekdays are another story. “The year following [Keller’s closing] business went down 38 percent.”
For the past three years, there have been sustained efforts to reopen a grocery. Immediately upon finding it shuttered, Marilyn Hyland, a third-generation Cliftonite and public relations consultant who now lives in Indian Hill, got to work. She’s a seasoned activist-fixer, having led the effort that saved the Esquire from a fate called Wendy’s, when the fast food chain planned to replace the theater. Hyland drafted her son Adam, a political consultant who lives in Clifton, into service. Initially, they hoped to help Keller’s reopen. They asked Governor Kasich to help the company set up a payment plan. He didn’t. They then attempted to find a buyer to operate in the space, and in May 2011, Steve Goessling, a local developer and grocery owner, bought the building. Goessling invested in new equipment and replaced the roof. But financing crashed and burned. Out of the ashes came the plan for a co-op.
The Hylands and the newly formed co-op organization assembled a board, then hired a lawyer and an industry consultant. Their plan involves owner-members and a paid staff of 50-60. They estimate they need $2 million to buy the building, and roughly $4.5 million to open. In April, Goessling signed a purchase agreement with Clifton Market—the deadline is mid-October. There is still a long way to go. To date, more than 400 shares have been sold, at $200 each. Clifton Market is hoping to raise $2 million from shareholder loans (minimum $1,000) and procure the rest through bank loans and other sources (such as distributors). They’ve instituted a system of neighborhood captains, who hold house parties to sell shares. Businesses up and down the Ludlow strip have stepped up: Ludlow Wines, Sitwell’s coffeehouse, and Om Eco Café donated space for office hours; Immanuel Presbyterian Church is providing space for community meetings.
“They’re still going to have to come up with a pretty substantial amount of equity before any financial institution would provide them with a loan, and then a bank would be looking for a well-developed business plan,” says Shaun Bond, professor of real estate at UC.
For now, the Esquire meeting ends with hope in the air. In front of the theater, some folks stand with signs proclaiming Clifton Market. Directly across the street, the old Keller’s space sits empty, its future envisioned but still in limbo.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue.