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Ashland Food Co-op viewed from First Street in downtown Ashland.

Ashland Co-op expansion could include housing

The space-cramped Ashland Food Co-op is on the verge of buying a 1.8-acre piece of bare land 100 yards north of its busy First Street shop — a spot that could be developed into a bigger store or become a second co-op.

The lot on Clear Creek Drive behind Ashland Lumber might also be used to build workforce or cooperative housing, which would put the 36-year-old, 10,000-member food store in a radically new business, providing affordable housing in a town that lacks it.

Dwellings might be for employees or the general community or both, said General Manager Emile Amarotico.

The Co-op at 237 N. First St. has for years been trying to acquire the adjacent Umpqua Bank property, which could create handy and much-needed parking and store space, but Amarotico says there’s no movement on that.

“It still might happen,” he says, and if it did, that would solve much of the co-op’s space challenge.

In a two-store scenario, the present shop would keep the connection with downtown and sell prepared foods, including the take-home and eat-on-site deli foods. The Clear Creek shop would be for produce and other fresh foods.

The co-op has entered into a “contract to purchase” the L-shaped lot, but Amarotico cautions that it hasn’t closed yet. Closing is set for May and, in the meantime, he and the board are doing due diligence. They’ve ascertained it is free of toxins from the rail yard to the east and has been used only for ranching since pioneer times.

It’s possible that the land purchase might be an interim step, so construction wouldn’t happen if land could be found downtown or near the present store, he says.

“In the meantime, no one is printing more land in downtown Ashland. This property is available. We said, ‘Let’s hedge our bets and secure something.’ If nothing else, this might turn into a good investment, but we didn’t buy it for that purpose.”

Amarotico is boosting the concept of cooperative ventures, noting the co-op already collaborates with the Medford Co-op, Grange Co-op and Rogue Credit Union. Housing could be done in a similar cooperative spirit, he said.

“We can make more of a difference in the valley if we demonstrate the value of cooperation,” Amarotico says. “Our employees struggle to find housing. Imagine a model where tenants own the cooperative. Everyone contributes equity. They pay rent to the cooperative. Year-end profit goes back to owners. It might make housing accessible.”

Amarotico speculated it could be 10 to 20 units at first, with apartments on top, all workforce housing, perhaps expanding to 100 or even 1,000 units someday.

“Why not shoot for the moon?” he said.

Parking is a huge problem in the existing co-op lot, and the store often sends out orange-vested parking guides to get people in and out.

“We walk a delicate line because we don’t want to pave paradise and appeal to motor vehicles, but the reality is that people are very dependent on cars to come here.”

Some members tell Amarotico they yearn for the co-op’s former modest space on Third Street and ask why they can’t stay small. He replies, “Ultimately, our need is to do more good, to offer more depth and service. The demands on this facility are overwhelming, so if we can do more good, why wouldn’t we?”

Co-op Board President Ed Claassen agreed with Amarotico that the property purchase is a wise move.

“The scarcity of lots this large in the downtown core makes it an attractive investment for the future. By purchasing this property, we have secured our option to develop it in the future, as we continue to explore the best way to meet the needs of our shoppers.”

The co-op’s leaders say they have explored new locations at the other end of town but decided it would best serve the community if it continued downtown.

Co-op members and other stakeholders will be involved in planning the new shop, which “will be a delight to shop in,” it said. Suggestions for the shop can be made via email at AFCCampus@AshlandFood.coop.

The Clear Creek land is owned by John Fields & Co., developers of several properties in that area. Amarotico declined to state the price. An area real estate firm had it listed at $1.5 million in February.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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