On October 8th, a Listserv message from Niko Horster, owner of Shire Beef in Vershire, called on community members to “get to know each other and work on a plan on how to support the new owners of Baker's store ….on Tuesday Oct.11th….”
Unfortunately, the new owners of Baker’s Store failed to materialize for various reasons. The purchase and sales agreement, though it had been signed, was ultimately canceled because the buyer could not meet the terms agreed upon with the seller in the allotted time frame. These included paying for the remaining contents of Baker’s and for the business trade name, as detailed in the real estate listing:
“Baker's Store in the village of Post Mills is available for continued use as a general store, deli, and gas station. In addition to the 3,000+ sq feet for the store, there is monthly rental income from three tenants: two 2BR apartments, and a five-year renewable lease from the US Postal Service. A contract has been negotiated with fuel distributor for a NEW owner to have the underground tanks, refurbished EMV compliant pumps, and a very good wholesale rate for gasoline. The sale includes land, building, store furniture, fixtures and equipment, the business trade name and goodwill.” (from the (real estate listing)
The group of residents had envisioned acting in a supporting role to sustain Baker’s as a viable business and a necessary pillar of the Post Mills community. However, after hearing that there was no new owner on the horizon, they began to brainstorm along different lines. Several people in the group possess business or financial experience, from running a coffee business in Vershire, to experience with co-ops and finance, to financial analysis and investment advisor. They applied their skills to come up with a new approach.
The possibility of the community purchasing Baker’s as a consumer-owned cooperative was complicated by the asking price of $550,000. Even though the store has two rental apartments that generate income and receives rent.for the Post Office, covering a mortgage of that size, plus all the operating expenses of the store, would be difficult.
Another issue is that the septic system is undefined. To install a system that complies with State regulations and includes a replacement location poses a challenge. A substantial part of the land (parking area) between the store and the rental “yellow house” next door is owned by the house, not Baker’s, while the land behind the parking area is flood plain and not suitable for septic systems. Although the seller currently owns both buildings, the rental house is not part of the real estate offering. The plan is to sell the house and the Village Store in Thetford Center separately.
But the group felt that keeping village businesses alive was very important for the Thetford Community, although it was risky. They decided to make an offer of $425,000 that encompassed Baker’s Store, the rental house, and the Village Store in Thetford Center. However, their offer was not accepted.
Another way of looking at the properties would be through the lens of housing. Baker’s Store occupies a large building, a former schoolhouse. The store only uses about half of the ground floor, and the remaining space could be converted into a rental unit or two. With the two existing rental apartments, the Baker’s building could then provide four affordable housing units. And today the climate for funding affordable housing is far more rosy than that for borrowing to purchase a country store.
Even so, the residents’ group needs to work with an entity that is eligible to apply for housing grants and loans. They turned to the Livable Real Estate Cooperative, founded by Thetford resident Nick Clark. It is an idea with promise since the concept for the Livable Cooperative is “to support community needs around housing and village vitality, to cover gaps that other developers can’t.”
As a co-op, Livable is eligible for loans from The Cooperative Fund of the Northeast (CFNE), a financial institution in Massachusetts that is dedicated to financing co-ops. CFNE is less shy of making loans for properties in need of remodeling than the mainstream “big banks.” A possible scenario would be for Livable to be the owner, responsible for making the renovations, managing the rentals, and interfacing with tenants. The residents’ group could rent Baker’s and operate the store as a co-op. Proceeds from all the rentals, including the Post Office, would pay the mortgage and property taxes.
However, any loan requires a downpayment. Niko estimates that the residents’ group will need to raise $100,000. More than 120 people responded to the initial call on the ListServ, and 43% said they were willing to invest. In the event that a deal is reached, tax-deductible donations could be made to Vershare, a 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation in Vershire that has community development as one of its goals, or to the Ompompanoosuc Community Trust in Thetford. The OCT is a 501(c)(3) non-profit operating fund providing financial support and services for community projects. OCT was formalized in 2008 to serve regional needs.
To date, there has been no deal with Baker’s current owner, who is still hoping to attract a buyer willing to pay the asking price. Meanwhile, the residents will play the waiting game and refine their vision.