An organization that is working to make access to local and organic food more affordable is closer to its goal, after learning that a hedge fund manager and philanthropist who lives in North Haven plans to donate building space in Portland and money for renovations.

The Portland Food Cooperative announced Monday that S. Donald Sussman, who leads Connecticut-based Paloma Partners, will donate a rent-free, five-year lease and $40,000 in cash to the nonprofit organization.

Under the agreement, the co-op will renovate a 4,700-square-foot warehouse at 60 Hampshire St. in Portland for use as a distribution point for its members/owners and eventually as a retail storefront.

“not having to pay rent, it keeps our capital costs down and in turn keeps the cost of food low,” said Emily Graham, who serves on the Portland Food Cooperative board. “He’s not just giving a gift to the co-op, he’s also giving a gift to Portland.”

Sussman, whose recent gifts to Maine organizations include donations to the Portland Public Library and the Preble Street service agency, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Sussman, the fiance of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has been in the news recently following reports that Pingree has flown on his private jet to and from Washington, D.C.

The Portland Food Cooperative, formed in 2006, has grown to more than 150 members. They pay a one-time $100 fee to join and take advantage of its wholesale food purchases.

The organization orders from United Natural Foods, the Frontier Natural Products Co-op, the Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative and local producers.

Each month, the Portland Food Cooperative buys $8,000 to $10,000 worth of goods, with about 40 percent of the items coming from Maine producers.

“Because we don’t have any paid staff, we only have a 10 percent markup,” Graham said.

“In a retail environment, products are generally marked up 20 to 40 percent,” said Marada Cook, who owns the Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative with her sister, Leah Cook. “In the Portland market, we often see produce marked up 100 percent. So in the Portland area, (the cooperative is) a real sweet deal.”

The Portland cooperative, which started as a buying club, has grown to be one of the Crown of Maine’s biggest accounts.

It’s following in the footsteps of the city’s former food cooperative, the Good Day Market, which opened in 1970 to serve the growing demand for health food.

The market closed in 1997, two years after it moved from the West End to the same neighborhood the Portland Food Cooperative will call home.

At the time, the Good Day Market’s treasurer told The Portland Press Herald that the store’s demise was caused by mounting debt accrued during the move to a higher-rent part of town.

In hopes of avoiding a similar fate, Graham said, “We’re focused on limiting the debt we take on.”

The donation of the rent-free space will enable the organization to accumulate capital, with the aim of eventually opening a retail operation.

Initial renovations to the building will include finishing the floors, building walls, adding drop ceilings and retrofitting the lighting.

The Portland Food Cooperative will be responsible for any renovation costs that aren’t covered by the $40,000 grant.

Once the building is refurbished, the co-op will install shelving donated by the Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta and bulk bins donated by the Bath Natural Market.

the end of this year, the Portland Food Cooperative hopes to be in its new space. But before it opens its storefront to the public, the organization’s members will do a cost analysis.

“Everyone shares the ideal of opening to the public,” Graham said. “But we also want to be sure that opening to the public doesn’t bring on more cost that makes the food more expensive than we want it to be.

“We were not expecting to be in a space that would allow us to grow into retail as soon as we are,” she said. “Having this building will accelerate our ability to have a retail store.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]