It all started with a chalkboard doodled with peace signs, sunflowers, and a message that said, “Welcome Co-op People!” An overflowing crowd packed into a conference room at the Bethlehem Area Public Library in 2011, just a few days following Thanksgiving, to hear a pitch about reviving the Bethlehem Food Co-op, a store originated in the early 70s that operated until the early 90s.
That dream has now come one step closer to reality, with the co-op signing a lease in North Bethlehem just short of a decade after that first meeting. Located at 250 East Broad St, the organization is partnering with Peron Development and Boyle Construction to see the project to completion. Peron and Boyle have collaborated on several other successful projects in the area including the Five10 Flats in South Bethlehem. In addition to the Co-Op, they are also working to redevelop Bethlehem’s Armory building and are overseeing the development of ‘The Confluence’ on Easton’s 3rd Street.
The location was announced on a virtual conference Friday evening, and co-op members and interested parties are encouraged to visit the location on Saturday for ‘Curbside with the Co-op’, a drive-by sign unveiling beginning at 10am. The event will also be livestreamed on the Co-op’s Facebook page. Volunteers will be handing out marketing items and membership information at the curbside.
The project calls for the demolition of the building currently on the lot, formerly a CrossFit gym that spans 20,000 square feet. The new structure, a four-story building with the Co-op on the ground floor and rental tenants in apartments above, is expected to be completed in 2022.
Bethlehem’s Mayor Bob Donchez said in a pre-recorded messaged that, “Opening a full-service grocery store in the neighborhood, especially on our north side, is vital to our city as we move forward.” He cited the city’s Northside 2027 plan, designed to build a walkable neighborhood with targeted investment and institutional anchors, as part of the town’s long-term vision that includes the Co-op. “This is a perfect fit for the neighborhood, a perfect fit for the north side.”
The co-op is technically a reinvention of a long-gone Bethlehem institution. In the 70s, a group of around 20 Lehigh University professors and students banded together to create the original grocery store, then located on Wyandotte Street. Their goal was to combat rising food prices in stores and offer unprocessed, healthy alternatives. Facing lack of member interest and growing competition from national supermarket chains, the co-op gradually declined and faced attempts to shut down as well as a fire before finally shuttering in the early 90s.
The revitalization garnered wide interest early on. I reported on the first meeting of the new effort back in 2011. Andy Popichak, the manager of the former store, along with about 70 others turned out to hear what a new group of volunteers under the lead of Jaime Karpovich, Summre Inama-Patricella, and Cathy Frankenberg had to say. The group cited Bethlehem’s status as a food desert as a large reason driving the new co-op. That point, ten years later, will surely become a reality for many more Bethlehem residents following the recent announcement that Ahart’s Market will close its doors at the end of April. Despite the stop-and-start nature of the co-op’s news over the past years, the group boasts nearly 800 members and has been increasingly visible in the community.
Both members and non-members will be able to shop in the store, and the group overseeing the co-op hopes to have local vendors on the shelves, a community kitchen, a community meeting room, outdoor dining area, bike rack, and off-street parking.
Following the site announcement, the Bethlehem Food Co-op will seek to raise $1.7 million in a capital campaign launching this spring. Nine directors that compromise the board of the co-op have all pledged financial support and the group hopes to raise the rest of the funding from a combination of donations, loans, and grants in addition to sponsorships and naming rights.
For more information about the Bethlehem Food Co-op, how to become a member, and more, visit bethlehemfood.coop.