Originally appeared in The Ambler Gazette | Sept. 22, 2017

AMBLER >> After many years as a USDA-designated “food desert,” the drought in Ambler is finally over.

Weavers Way Ambler, the borough’s much-anticipated grocery store, will finally open its doors next month.

Inhabiting the once-forlorn Bottom Dollar Food building at 217 E. Butler Ave., the store’s Oct. 27-29 grand opening celebration will mark the culmination of a years-in-the-making communitywide effort.

59c54679e23a8.imageOnce known as the Ambler Food Co-op, the grassroots movement that made Weavers Way Ambler possible was born of the simple desire for an in-town food market — a grocery store residents could conceivably walk to.

To an outsider, this may seem like a small problem, and its solution may seem obvious: Wait long enough, and, sooner or later, a grocery store will open. The thing is, people did wait. And stores did open. But then they’d close again — sometimes quickly.

From the long-gone A&P and Acme stores, to, most recently, the short-lived Bottom Dollar, many grocers have come and gone over the years. People almost came to expect it. For many Ambler residents, grocery stores themselves seemed as perishable as the goods they sold.

“People in this town do not have access to good food. Period. They have access to very limited food,” said Kathleen Casey, the current deputy project manager at Weavers Way who once served as president of the Ambler Food Co-op board.

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Kathleen Casey, left, speaks with Bonnie Stone at the Weavers Way pre-opening event at the new Ambler location Sept. 8, 2017. Bob Raines–Digital First Media

That’s why, a little more than five years ago, a small group of people in town decided to band together and establish a store of their own. After time, that group grew — and kept growing.

These days, Weavers Way, which eventually absorbed the Ambler Food Co-op, has an estimated 7,000-plus member households, with more than 700 in the Ambler area alone. And those Ambler members have helped raise upwards of $4 million.

Though the store is community-owned — meaning individual co-op members make payments toward a lifetime equity amount of $400 — Weavers Way Ambler will be open to non-members, too.

“We were motivated by the urgency of the situation,” Casey said. “A co-op was important because there was this very obvious need to have a grocery store, and that need was being unfulfilled.

“So, folks gathered to say, ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’”

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It began at a fence

One afternoon in the fall of 2011, next door neighbors Jean Parry and Estelle Wynn Dolan were chatting over the mostly wood-slat fence dividing their properties. Both were new to Ambler. Dolan, in an offhand comment, observed, “This place is great, but there’s no grocery store.”

Parry concurred. “Ambler has everything,” she said. “It has the theater and the coffee shops and little things, but there’s absolutely nowhere to walk for food.”

Reminiscing about that 6-year-old conversation on a recent August afternoon, Dolan and Parry, seated next to each other on Parry’s front porch, were exuberant. Every so often they would glance across the yard at the fence where that auspicious chat — the first of many grocery store-related chats — took place.

“Every other neighbor was like, ‘Oh, we used to have an Acme,’” Parry remembered with a laugh. “They would woe the days of when there was an Acme!”

Seeing room for improvement, Parry told Dolan about PCC Community Markets, a food cooperative in Seattle, Wash., where she had lived for years before moving to Ambler with her family.

Conveniently located at the end of her street, “We could get everything we needed [at PCC], whenever we needed to,” Parry told her neighbor. It was just a walk or short drive away. “That’s what we need in this town.”

As it turns out, Parry was sharing this thought with exactly the right person. Dolan, who once worked at the REI co-op, happened to be friends with David Woo, the then-board president of Weavers Way Co-op, which at that point had stores in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

“It was just like this brainstorm,” Dolan said. “[Parry] mentioned co-ops, and I thought of Weavers Way, and I told her about Weavers Way.”

A week later, the neighbors met with Woo over coffee in Chestnut Hill and asked him to open a new location in Ambler.

“He flipped it around 100 percent,” Parry said, laughing. “He was like, ‘You guys can do this.’ We were like, ‘No no no! You guys could just open one here!’”

Woo demurred. He told them, “We don’t have the capital, but here’s the steps you need to take. First, you have to hold a community meeting.”

A couple months later, on Jan. 25, 2012, a community meeting was held at the Montco SAAC building, to gauge Ambler residents’ interest in a co-op and to formulate a rough plan. Parry and Dolan said they were hoping for about 50 attendees. They ended up getting more than 150.

“You couldn’t get in the door,” Parry said.

59c547c60b3f8.image“The First Six,” from left: Karen Palmer, Jamie Aronow, Joan Patton, Estelle Wynn Dolan, Jean Parry, and Kelly Dalsemer. Photo courtesy Estelle Wynn Dolan

Dolan added, “It was totally packed. It was standing-room only. My husband was on the video and was watching people come and leave.” There were already hints of a groundswell.

As the meeting commenced, Woo, who by that point was insistent that Weavers Way would not be involved, set the course for the next five years.

“David stood up,” Parry recalled, “and said, ‘This is how this happens: You’re going to start committees. And you’re going to start meeting together. And you’re going to keep meeting. People are going to drop off. New people are going to join. Eventually you’re going to settle on a scheme and just keep fighting until you get this store.’ ”

And so the Ambler Food Co-op was born, and committees were formed. Most notably, a six-person steering committee formed, a group composed of Dolan, Parry, Karen Palmer, Jamie Aronow, Kelly Dalsemer and Joan Patton. Dolan referred to this group as “The First Six.”

“We had such a following,” Parry said. Over time, that following grew, until even the once-hesitant Weavers Way joined the effort. “I think they knew it was going to happen here, come hell or high water.”

Hell or high water (or Bottom Dollar)

During the ensuing years, the Ambler Food Co-op’s presence spread throughout the borough. Membership drives became semi-regular occurrences. Information tables held space at First Fridays and summer events like the Arts & Music Festival. Signs sprouted up in front yards all over town.

But something else happened during that time, as the co-op movement continued to grow and more volunteers were working toward opening a grocery store in Ambler.

A grocery store opened in Ambler.

On Oct. 31, 2013, Bottom Dollar Food opened its doors at 217 Butler Ave. Though it was hardly a surprise — people knew the store was eyeing the location — it’s hard not to imagine the mere presence of the store would be dispiriting for co-op members. It must have hampered people’s enthusiasm.

Quite the opposite, said Kathleen Casey.

“What was interesting was, that first community meeting happened right on the cusp of the announcement that the Bottom Dollar was coming,” the deputy project manager said. “You sort of expect people to be like, ‘Ah, good, I can go home. I don’t have to do anything now.’ ” Instead, “the co-op continued to organize and grow.”

Before the Bottom Dollar even opened, “People were skeptical about it,” she added. “It is the case that grocery stores have come and gone in the past. A&P came and went. Acme came and went. So people wanted something that is owned by the community.

“[The co-op] just structurally is a different enterprise,” she continued. “It’s more reliable. And it dovetails with people’s increased interest in providing food that is healthy and a quality they can trust. So people also felt that Bottom Dollar wouldn’t accomplish all those goals.”

Undeterred, the co-op soldiered on. And, on Jan. 13, 2015, when the Bottom Dollar closed up shop not 15 months after opening, the co-op’s unwavering perseverance paid off, in the form of a newly vacant building fully equipped to house a grocery store.

59c54873c8678.imageSigns in the paper-covered windows announce the closure of the Ambler Bottom Dollar Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. Bob Raines — Digital First Media file photo

“I remember when [the Bottom Dollar] got built some people got upset about it, like, ‘Oh no, we’ve got competition,’” Estelle Wynn Dolan said. But Dolan, and others, saw it differently; they saw an opportunity for Bottom Dollar to do some of their legwork. “Let them put the refrigeration units in,” she thought. “Save us the money and take care of the permitting and all the multiple landowners.”

Plus, for many involved in the co-op effort, there’s a kind of poetic justice to the fact that Weavers Way Ambler is opening in the Bottom Dollar building. After all, the whole movement began because grocery stores didn’t stick around. Now, Weavers Way is opening in the husk of one of those stores.

“It feels like it’s taking it back to the community,” Casey said.

Becoming Weavers Way

On a tour of the 17,000-square-foot Weavers Way Ambler building in late August, with the buzzing and humming din of power tools filling the still-empty space, General Manager Jon Roesser, with a hard hat on his head, points out the store’s many future sections.

Meats. Dairy. Seafood. Produce. A salad bar. A made-to-order sandwich and soup counter. A small cafe, with plenty of seating and available wifi.

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Jacqueline Duris and Pierre Ravacan look at the unfinished interior of the new Weavers Way store in Ambler at a pre-opening event Sept. 8, 2017. Bob Raines

For Weavers Way, a cooperative with roots reaching back to 1972, the Ambler location (which was first announced Nov. 1, 2016) will be the third — and largest — full-service grocery store for the slow-growing organization.

“It’s not large for a food co-op,” Roesser said of the Ambler location, but “it’s large for us. It’s going to be about twice the size of our Chestnut Hill store. Our Chestnut Hill store has all the departments that this store has, but it’s just smaller.”

Though it’s been a long five-year process getting to this point, it could have been much longer. Had Weavers Way not partnered with the Ambler Food Co-op, this collective dream could still be years from realization. From the beginning, people who know co-ops cautioned a long road.

“Five years for a startup is usually not enough,” Casey said. “Kensington, South Philly [co-ops took] 10 years. And if Weavers Way didn’t ultimately say yes, we would still be organizing, and it probably would have taken us 10 years. But we were fortunate.”

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The Weavers Way Ambler building in mid-August.

According to the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, there are only seven fully formed food co-ops in the Greater Philadelphia Area, with seven more listed as startups in the process of forming. Roesser, who’s been with Weavers Way since 2008, noted that, more often than not, co-op efforts eventually unravel, as it dawns on organizers how much uphill work is involved.

“It’s certainly no guarantee that a group of neighbors can take a dream of a community-owned grocery store and turn it into a reality,” he said. “In fact, I’d say probably nine times out of 10, it just doesn’t gain traction.” By getting involved when it did, Weavers Way, if not exactly saving the Ambler co-op movement, greatly accelerated it.

When asked what caused his organization’s eventual change of heart — what convinced it to embrace the Ambler Food Co-op — Roesser pretty much said it came down to good timing.

“There were some compelling reasons why we felt it made sense for us to grow our business, and so, coincidentally, at the same time … the Ambler Food Co-op folks were trying to open up a co-op,” he said. “And there’s lots of similarities. Ambler is basically the next marketplace over to our marketplace in Chestnut Hill. It’s really a natural extension of our existing market footprint.”

Asked the same question, Casey laughed and responded, “Oh my gosh, I think I tried everything except bribes! It was a process. And once people started seeing the enthusiasm for a co-op, that did a lot to convince Weavers Way to consider this project.”

“I think the way we’ve done it here is the best way forward,” said Roesser. “Like, you have the Ambler Food Co-op folks who did the heavy lifting early on and got the community’s involvement early on and really basically created the social capital. And then take that and partner it with an established cooperative and everything that we bring to the table — it’s the best of both worlds.”

For a process that Casey described as being at times “nail biting” and “tenuous,” there’s palpable excitement, and even some relief, among co-op members right now. With only weeks left before the doors open, emotions are running high.

“We had this event in the building — we called it Members Take Ownership,” Casey said. “It was so beautiful. A lot of members came. We literally had people tell us they’re ready to cry.”

“There’s a way that it’s unbelievable,” she added. Against many — if not all — odds, “there’s us, this community with very little resources except for volunteer time. It is astronomical the amount of time people have put in as volunteers.

“We were just so dedicated. When you have everyday people invest in you, when all you are is a name in a plan, there’s a way in which you feel like there is just no room for doubt. You have to find a way.”

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