Vermont is a beautiful place, no doubt about it, but it will drive anyone with more than an ounce of common sense (like me) absolutely nuts. The state motto ought to be ‘We Want Something Besides Alternatives.’ Never have I seen a place more pathologically bound and determined to re-invent the wheel. I lived there for over twelve years; since moving back to the Midwest I’ve continued to follow their news stories over the Internet. One current story is an example of the kind of goofiness that used to just grate on me. This is only one example but it’s a good one.

            Burlington is the biggest city in the whole state of Vermont and has a population of 40,000 or so. That’s right, it’s the biggest city in the state. There are mere counties in America that have 10 or 20 times as many people as the whole state of Vermont!  Well, in a state of about 550,000 people, Burlington is the Big City. And hands down, it’s the crown jewel of the nuttiness.

Okay. Burlington needs a grocery store in its downtown area. There are a few farther out from downtown, and in surrounding towns (I refuse to call such bergs ‘suburbs’), but not downtown. There was one but it closed in the early 1990’s, so now, anyone living in downtown Burlington has to go a distance to do any serious grocery shopping.

            Did you ever wonder how most towns get a grocery store? Well, usually they don’t have to worry about it. Some nice company comes and renovates an existing building or builds a new one, moves in, stocks the shelves, hires the workers, and voila’, you have a grocery store! 

            But that is in MOST places. Surely not in Burlington, Vermont, and especially not DOWNTOWN Burlington!  No, they need an alternative. Grocery chains submitted proposals for a new store to be built on the site of the former police station. All of these proposed stores would have been built and paid for by the grocery company, of course. At least one of the companies is a very large grocery chain – so you know they have variety, buying power, warehousing capabilities so they could order and carry anything the customers requested. In short, Burlington had the chance to simply sit back and watch a private company move in and set them up with a first-rate grocery store. But no, that would be the time-tested, normal way. That will not do. They must do something to prove they are ‘progressive’. They need a coalition, community group involvement, some sort of government program assistance, maybe a subsidy or two…. and of course the local government must have a say in how everything will be done.

This will not be a place to buy groceries so much as it will be a social – political – anti-capitalist-business statement.

            The Burlington City Council (which had to approve the new company since it was going to be using or buying or leasing the location of the old police station) has a few members who are also members of the Onion River produce co-op. This co-op sells fresh farm produce - not groceries - they have no warehousing or distribution or buying power, so naturally it was this co-op that was selected to build and run the new grocery store. Does that sound logical? Well, not to me it doesn't, but I guess it depends what your real objective is. Do you want a grocery store, or do you want to be progressive and re-invent a concept that has worked well for sixty years? Remember, we're talking about Burlington, Vermont here....

            So the co-op is buiding a grocery store. It is running months behind schedule. There has been a constant shortage of dollars and the cost has moved up from $4 million to $5 million, the vast majority of which will be financed.  The construction began last winter and the concrete floor has only recently been poured. They are still trying to raise additional funds from not just their membership but from the community in general and they still don't have the money to buy the refrigerated equipment, among other things.   I'm glad my town is not so 'progressive'. Nobody here has ever asked me to donate money to buy equipment for our grocery stores.

            So they have a produce co-op, which is now going to run a grocery store, they have no warehousing or distribution or buying power, they can’t possibly begin to compete with the major grocery chains on selection or price. It looks to me like they are set up mostly to take a royal shellacking, and downtown Burlington still won't have the grocery store it needs. How about if we run this concept even further off the road? What a progressive town's grocery store really needs are a 'community room' and a ‘training kitchen’ and perhaps a rooftop garden. (Why doesn't MY grocery store have a 'community room'? All it has is FOOD. I feel cheated!) One can only hope that this progressive new store will also carry some groceries.

            My wife suggested that it would have been more appropriate to build the store downstate in Waterbury. Interesting observation.

            Had Burlington said ‘yes’ to Shaw’s or one of the other conventional bidders, the people of downtown Burlington would already be shopping at their new grocery store, with low prices and a wide selection and special sales and promotions just like at any other real grocery store. But no, they are reinventing the wheel, yet again. And like this former resident, many people in the area wonder--- “WHY?!” Callers to local radio programs are not happy with what they are seeing and how long it is taking. They wanted a grocery store, not a social statement!

UPDATE: The City Market has opened at long last, just a couple of weeks ago. What's the verdict so far? One letter writer to the Burlington Free Press said it this way: It's a very nice store, but if this was intended to be a place for people to come and do their weekly grocery shopping, it is a complete failure. Another person I spoke with via email said it feels like an upscale tourist trap, not a grocery store. Various comments I have read on the news from Burlington indicate that the selection is lacking in the wide variety one expects of a grocery store; one shopper was dismayed that the store didn't carry something as ordinary as Miracle Whip. (I think I can find that at the grocery section of my local gas station convenience store!) Prices? Low on some things but a test 'shopping trip' made at two local grocery chains and then at City Market put the Market's prices higher than at the other stores. One brand of shampoo that cost $3.19 at one store and $3.99 at another cost $4.99 at the Market. $17-$19 worth of groceries at the regular stores cost about $21 at the Market. I don't suppose the test shoppers used any coupons, which would be doubled at the regular stores for sure but at the Market? I would bet they don't. Okay. They came up with a nice store for downtown Burlington where you can buy some groceries, as well as a bunch of organic / natural / Vermont stuff which was available at their older smaller store. But they didn't build what everyone wanted, what everyone has been waiting for. They did not build a supermarket! So, with all this ado behind them, the people in the downtown area can continue to get on a bus or hop in the car and go to a regular supermarket like they've been doing for the past several years. Will downtown Burlington have an actual grocery store, ever again? Someday? Maybe? Only if the City Council stops trying to provide their version of a superior alternative and lets Burlington have what just about everyone in the US happily shops at - a normal, conventional, capitalist (shudder!) business known as a supermarket. Now it seems to me that a while back, I said such a store as the Co-Op / City Market couldn't possibly compete on the basis of price or selection with what the public wanted; the comments of the shoppers indicate I was right. Seems to me I said that Burlington would still be without a real grocery store. Seems I was right about that too. After all this hoopla, Burlington has made it necessary for the local residents to continue driving several miles if they want to actually do their grocery shopping - and this is per those who have shopped (or tried to shop) at the new Market. Socialist ideas and controls only work when they can operate on Capitalist money. Burlington has not figured that out yet, and that includes having the government dictate how business - or if business - can operate. Finally, here is one more prediction from me - those who complain about the store will be told that THEY are the problem and that they should be happy with what they have been provided.

            Only in Burlington, or in the Communist nation of your choice.

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