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Co-opportunity Knocking

Volunteers support local community, bring new life to downtown Meridian

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At Rick's Press Room in downtown Meridian, the comforting waft of homemade cookies mingled with a murmur of introductions. Tables were pushed together and chairs squeezed in as people arrived for McFadden Market Co-op's first public meeting on July 23. McFadden Co-op, a recent dream of architect and sheep shearer Ward Schwider, will be Meridian's first community-owned mecca for "organic, pesticide-free and ecologically sound products." Though it's been scarcely more than a month since that initial meeting, McFadden Co-op is already bounding forward toward its projected late-December soft-opening date.

The co-op will be housed in the old Meridian Exchange Bank and McFadden's Market building at the corner of Second Street and Broadway Avenue in downtown Meridian. According to Schwider, the building's new owner, the space was opened in 1902 and its musty interior has seen only spiders and settling dust since 1946. Schwider plans to maintain its original charm by keeping the antique window moldings and turning the old bank vault into a wine cellar. All of the building's improvements will meet LEED environmental certification and, if possible, use recycled materials.

"This is more than just a market. This is going to be a green building, it's sustainable architecture ... I want to put solar collectors on the roof and try to run off the grid as much as I can," said Schwider.

To organize this ambitious venture, Schwider has worked closely with developer John McCarthy, bakery chef Deb McGrath, marking specialist Margo Whale and farmer Janell Lester. Though everyone has a similar vision for the space, each individual brings a different background and skill set that has contributed to the project's overall breadth. For example, Whale became interested in the locovore movement after reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, and observing the effects of suburbanization on local agriculture.

"I first became concerned about it because I have seen a lot of the farms in Kuna become subdivisions ... so I just developed more of a concern about losing our local agriculture," said Whale. "The fact that we, as a community, can make choices to buy local foods and enjoy the freshness and wholesomeness of local produce is an opportunity to support our local agriculture."

Whale, and the 40 to 50 others who have volunteered to help found McFadden Market Co-op, hope to provide the Treasure Valley community with another alternative to chain supermarkets and pesticide-laden produce. The co-op has already formed partnerships with Buck's Barnyard, Cabalo's Orchard and Gardens, Take the Cake Bakery, Vogel Family Farms and Wilsey Ranch to provide local goods and produce when the store opens. Though they admit to the necessity of contracting with out-of-state suppliers to stock the store's shelves year-round, the co-op hopes to reduce the amount of energy used to transport food from farm to plate by relying on the fresh bounty of local farmers and ranchers.

"If we see ourselves as a society moving in a direction that we don't want to move, we have to put in place the things that will help move us in the right direction," said Whale. "There are some underlying value choices that we all have to make and the people that want to make those similar kind of value choices need opportunities and alternatives to places to exercise them."

But McFadden Co-op is just one part of a much larger urban renewal plan currently transforming downtown Meridian. A new city hall will consolidate all of the city's fragmented departments under one centralized roof. Across the street from the co-op, plans for a three-story, 28,000 square-foot mixed-use development called The Hub are in the works. The Meridian Development Corporation recently acquired and consolidated the property and has contracted with Eagle's Lightyear Development Inc. to turn it into retail and office spaces. MDC is also working on plans to widen downtown sidewalks, plant trees, erect streetlights and develop sufficient parking options.

"We're in the process right now of looking at a complete vision for Second Street," said MDC administrator Shaun Wardle. "Our goal is to make it pedestrian-friendly, walkable and to provide additional outdoor seating opportunities for both commerce and dining. It would be our intention to develop that entire corridor at the same time that the co-op goes in and that The Hub building goes in."

Though Boise has recently experienced a disheartening flurry of restaurant closings, Wardle is confident that Meridian is ready to embrace a new, revitalized downtown economy.

"We're really having kind of a culinary revival in downtown Meridian and have had a number of new restaurants go in: Rick's Press Room, Andrew's Rib Shack, the Flatbread Community Oven," said Wardle. "I think there's a real interest in the community for having local, sustainable types of establishments, and the co-op really fits into that mold."

But there's a major blockade to these dreams of expansive urban renewal: Union Pacific Railroad owns 20 acres in downtown Meridian, and they want it to remain zoned for industrial use. Though Union Pacific has agreed to change their previous one-month property leases to one-year leases with one-year eviction clauses, the conflict continues to be a wrench in the cogs for developing a cohesive urban epicenter. As Schwider explains, it's hard to secure a loan to build out a piece of property when your lease could expire any time.

"Union Pacific doesn't want to have convention centers, event centers [or] residential on their property," says Schwider. "They are definitely willing to have light industrial and maybe retail."

Though these differences might seem like a big setback, both Schwider and Wardle are optimistic that they can work with Union Pacific to come to an agreement on how to best utilize the space.

In the meantime, McFadden Co-op is humming along toward its holiday opening goal. Schwider and Whale both stress the importance of community involvement in keeping the project on track. Last Saturday, volunteers gathered to snap lines, cut wood and use battery-powered drills to begin improvements on the building. And as soon as the power is turned on, Schwider said, they'll be able to get even more done.

"Meridian just needs to have that critical mass where there's just enough activity where things will really start to draw people downtown ... When the co-op goes in, that could really be the key to making the whole downtown really explode."

For more information on McFadden Market Co-op or to volunteer, go to mcfaddenmarketcoop.com. The next planning meeting will take place at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Library Coffeehouse, 141 E. Carlton Ave., Meridian.

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