The Garden City Food Co Op: An ending, or a stepping stone?

There’s no one factor definitively at fault for the demise of the four years’ dream that was the Garden City Food Co Op, attempting to remedy the “food desert” in downtown St. Catharines . As with most community endeavours, there were factors that were more pervasive (and part of the larger ongoing “landscape” of Niagara) and others that may have been preventable, and were unique to this situation.

I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him; the ill he did lives after him, the good is interred with his bones. This is not flippant facetiousness but to indicate that some of the “ills” demonstrated here – volunteer burnout, for example – are evident in other organizations, other Niagara groups both social and cultural. Many groups run on the blood of the same overlapping pool of volunteers. That was clear in the makeup of the Garden City Food Co Op [GCFC] from the beginning (in 2013), with its board bearing connections and histories with various groups past and present in the region. It’s also clear in how the AGMs ebbed from several hundred in attendance, at early meetings, to barely making quorum in the final one on May 28, 2017, when dissolving the group.

I’ve been encountering a cynicism from many individuals whom purchased memberships and feel that they received nothing for their contribution. In conversation with several board members, it was explained that the $120 membership fee was spent on staff and other clearly demonstrable expenses (such as research that is currently being used by City Hall in hopes of luring a bigger box grocery store to the downtown). There were also “sponsored memberships” to ensure groups and individuals that were essential to the GCFC’s mandate were included, and represented. One board member cited that there is a misunderstanding about what collectives might hope to accomplish, in terms of long term goals, and that immediate gratification wasn’t the goal, but to effectively and deeply alter the “food desert” of the downtown. There was a plethora of enthusiasm from the board, but not necessarily a match of experience. And the history of the collective – and the divisions and tensions that happened in choosing the downtown site – also demonstrated that there wasn’t a unanimity of vision and focus that may have worked against the eventual success of the GCFC.

Several determinants need to be cited, as cumulative speed bumps that eventually derailed GCFC’s momentum; the less than ideal timeline of the capital campaign, due to delays in approval from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (a six month period to raise $500,000 proved impossible); the developer, Nick Atalick, seemingly forgetting – or not being reminded – of his commitment to the GCFC, amid his desire to ‘revitalize’ the downtown with a condo project in the designated GCFC site, which surely euthanized an already crippled fundraising initiative; issues around communication / miscommunication with invested (or hoped to be so) groups; and aforementioned volunteer burnout.

Several of these raise further questions: was the Commission’s decision expected or avoidable – a roundabout way of asking if this was an error on the part of the GCFC or simply an unpleasant hoop (that any of us who’ve worked with nonprofits, collectives, etc., are familiar with) that had to be “jumped through?” Atalick’s proposal to city hall in April of 2016 was the first time that the GCFC was made aware of his condo “dreams” for the downtown; was this a lack of communication, a lack of oversight, or, to paraphrase another GCFC board member, was Atalick just flush with his own ideas of how to “revitalize” the downtown? Whether this constitutes a breach of trust is another matter to consider (or whether this is a variation on how renters are victims of the whims of owners).  The emergency meetings that followed Atalick’s bombshell saw the members just barely vote to rethink and reform what they’d planned, but by a nearly even split. One board member commented that, in retrospect, it might have been a cleaner, or more direct, end of the GCFC than allowing it to languish to a slow death, with no interest or activity from volunteers to rebuild….

This is as good a place in this difficult story to point out that the downtown has been in flux, often flailing about for simple solutions to a complex problem (whether in the push for a grocery store downtown, condos – though with Toronto and Port Dalhousie as lessons, that one’s specious – or the MIWSFPA) since before most of us were born, and shows no signs of resolving.

Poverty suffuses this debate, returning to the previously quoted community gardener.  Its pervasive (if unacknowledged) in STC, whether the working poor or those hanging by fingernails on the ledge of tenacious employment. That the space for the GCFC was to be displaced for condos also beggars where the civic politicians and leaders were in this debate, and whether the lip service from that quarter is also a contributing factor in the GCFC’s end….That the landscape of downtown St. Catharines has changed dramatically from the inception of the GCFC can’t be denied, either, whether we term it gentrification or revitalization, whether an opportunity or a displacement.

Some have said the GCFC should have modelled itself more on the Rutabagga Collective, a 1970s collective  that had smaller goals: but that group also was volunteer dependant, and had a fluidity that eventually contributed to its dissolution, in trying to accomplish less (or “more realistically”, edit as you will).

But this is also that great arrogant beast, hindsight. When the “rethink” process was taking place over the last few months, volunteer engagement and involvement was much less than needed or hoped: as available funds had already been spent, there was no staff or website to further this process…the rethink process failed as many GCFC members were too spent, and too deflated, to begin again.

In Buffalo, or Welland, there are successful groups of this ilk, serving members and the communities. So why not here?  Applying these questions to another site: my future updates on Rodman Hall will be exploring whether the community is willing – and thus able – to support the space, or if it will fall to the inertia and lethargy that many complain is Niagara. Or, quoting another board member, they “just learned what you need to know for next time.” A “common purpose” foundation has been laid.

It’s worth noting that the same day that I began to seriously sink my teeth into this article, I had to make a run down to the Market in downtown STC; seeking peas and strawberries for my father, a supplement to his weekly shopping. The quantity and quality of what was there, on a Tuesday afternoon, was significant. I could have purchased the same thing from several vendors, all of excellent – and local – quality.

One of the board members I spoke with indicate that their heart is broken at its failure, but would try it again, in a moment….to return to the Shakespearean quote at the beginning, will the good accomplished be forgotten, or built upon?

Of all the issues here, the most important is the most obvious: what next? Is this an ending, or a stepping stone?

This was an enterprise that was (is) positive – and necessary – in many ways. Is this dead, now? Who’s stepping in or stepping up to revitalize this? Or will people complain without commitment or offer nothing but critique without solutions? That’s not a question I can answer for you, Niagara. That one is up to you, you might say….