BRATTLEBORO -- Standing under a tent outside Brattleboro Food Co-op Saturday, longtime General Manager Alex Gyori offered a bit of reassurance.
"Someday soon, we will finish this project," Gyori said.
His remark drew laughter from a crowd that's grown accustomed to ongoing, heavy construction since the new co-op building opened in June.
But that crowd had gathered for a reason: The $9 million project now is substantially complete, allowing supporters to finally celebrate a grand opening not only of the 14,500-square-foot store but also the 24 mixed-income apartments above it.
Several speakers hailed the building as a model for business and residential development statewide.
"This project is indeed exemplary of the best kind of creative thinking," said Jeff Shumlin, board president of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
The trust partnered with co-op administrators to develop the building at Canal and Main streets. Construction lasted about two years, but the project has been in the works for much longer.
Gyori said his staff had developed projections of how the co-op, given rising membership and maintenance costs, might fare for the long term at its former building that had stood on the same lot.
The conclusion: "We would have been in real trouble," Gyori recalled.
So administrators set about replacing the aging, strip-mall-style structure with something entirely different. One big question guided that process.
"What do you want the co-op to be for your children's grandchildren?" said John Hatton, the co-op's board president.
They came up with a design that is environmentally friendly inside and out. For instance, waste heat generated by the co-op's refrigeration units is used to supply hot water to both the store and apartments.
The green philosophy extended even to the parking lot, which is covered with pavers that are designed to minimize runoff.
"It slows the water down and lets it filter through. There's crushed rock under there," said Sabine Rhyne, the co-op's shareholder and community relations manager.
On the co-op's roof is a 30.6-kilowatt solar array that is generating power for the store. It was financed by Hatfield, Mass.-based Co-op Power, which expects to sell the system to the food co-op in about five years.
In the meantime, "it starts generating some profit for our business," said Tom Simon, a Southern Vermont coordinator for the company.
Simon said the business is seeking more member-owners to support its ventures, which include a recycled vegetable oil biodiesel plant under development in Greenfield, Mass. More information is available at www.cooppower.coop.
Of course, the need for more shopping space -- not green power -- is what initially spurred the project. And the new building delivers: Administrators say they've increased the store's retail area by nearly 40 percent.
That means staffers such as Tony Hecht, a beer and wine assistant, have a lot more elbow room.
"Stuff is a lot easier to find, and we can put a whole lot more on the shelf," Hecht said as he stocked shelves on Saturday.
He noted one other big benefit: With inventory more accessible, there are fewer dropped bottles.
"Personally, that's a lot better for me," Hecht said with a smile.
The project also made things a little better for renters in Brattleboro.
"This building leased up within eight weeks of being open," said Connie Snow, executive director of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
Snow said that, when co-op administrators first approached the housing trust about partnering to develop apartments in the new building, there wasn't much hesitation.
"I had to think for about two seconds," she said. "And then it was a resounding, ‘yes.'"
Also involved in the effort was the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which administers a federal tax credit program that benefited construction of the co-op building.
"This is a fabulous project," said Sarah Carpenter, the agency's executive director. "Just the right location. Just the right combination. We really need to find a way to do more of it."
Saturday's celebration also included representation from staff members of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Vt.-I, and Patrick Leahy, Vt.-D. Snow read a letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Administrators spent part of the ceremony detailing a long list of agencies and businesses that assisted with the project. They also offered thanks to staff members who worked through a difficult transition and shoppers who have put up with earth-moving equipment and other obstacles throughout the summer and fall.
For financing purposes, the store had to be occupied before the end of last fiscal year. But much work remained.
"The gratitude that we feel for people who have been dealing with this . . . They've been really wonderful. We can't thank them enough," Rhyne said.
There have been growing pains, especially for shoppers who had grown fond of and familiar with the former co-op building. Hatton said administrators have faced similar questions in the past as the co-op grew and moved into new quarters several times.
Some examples? "It's too big. It's too corporate. It's too clean," Hatton said, adding that there were a few members who departed when the co-op stopped using wood shelving.
But times have changed for a food cooperative that was founded in a High Street basement in 1975. Having topped $1 million in sales in 1987, the store now generates about $17 million annually, Hatton said.
In 1988, the year the co-op moved into the building it would occupy until this year, there were about 1,000 members, Gyori said. There now are 10,000, with more than 6,000 of those considered active members.
Gyori said he has tried to watch for shoppers who appear confused or a bit lost, adding that he has given more than a few tours of the new store.
"Overall, the response has been really positive," he said. "Some folks are still a little disoriented."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.