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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Forecast 2024: Johnson Ignited the Electric City Food Co-op Initiative

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SCHENECTADY​ – Amidst the energy crisis ​faced by the Electric City Co-op movement ⁣during the COVID pandemic, Eric Johnson ⁢emerged as a ⁣beacon of ⁤hope with his innovative solutions.

Since the ​Schenectady-born Johnson⁣ joined the decade-long mission to establish ​a grocery store ⁣in ‍downtown Schenectady, the‍ initiative⁤ has gained significant ⁣momentum. Over $4 million in grants have been secured, ‌and ⁣membership has more than doubled. The organization has ⁢also undergone a rebranding, now known ⁤as the Electric ⁣City Community Grocery, and is on the ⁤verge of finalizing a building site.

Johnson, who took on the role of board president in May,​ was⁢ quick to attribute the ECCG’s progress to a committed team. He described himself as a “constructive disrupter” who brought ​a fresh perspective to the table.

“Transforming a community group’s dream of a grocery store into reality ⁢is ‌no easy task,” said Johnson, who‌ has previous⁢ experience with co-op startups. “The usual ⁤and expected outcome is failure. ⁢So, we‍ had to shift our narrative from, ⁣‘We’re trying to open a grocery store’ to ‘We are opening a grocery store.’ This simple change in language has made ⁣a significant ⁢impact.”

As⁣ a ⁤project manager by trade, Johnson⁣ assists the Pacific Gas & Electric Company in optimizing ⁣its‍ use of renewable‍ energy, managing wildfire risks, ‍and electric ‍car charging. His ⁣passions ⁢include community-owned grocery stores⁣ and promoting an‌ efficient transition from ‌fossil fuels. He also enjoys long-distance hiking ⁢and is a⁤ fan of Taylor Swift.

Johnson is following in the footsteps of his mother, the⁤ late Karen Johnson, who was Schenectady’s first female mayor and an early member of the‍ ECCG initiative. She was a​ powerful advocate‌ for positive change in the ‌city.

Despite growing up in Schenectady, Johnson had no plans to⁣ stay. He described the⁤ Electric ⁣City of ‍his youth as a “well-structured industrial ​town on the brink of collapse.”

However, ‌he stayed for college, ‌attending Union, where he studied how cultural groups and companies adopt technology ​over time. ⁢After graduating⁢ in⁤ 1993, Johnson embarked on a journey to the West⁢ on his mountain bike.

“I was‍ unsure about my future,” he confessed.

His journey took him to‍ Oregon, but‌ he ended up staying in Telluride, Colorado, for six years. During this time, he worked⁢ in various fields, including land surveying, snowmaking, bread baking, and house building. He also started a daily​ newspaper.

“In these quiet, rural towns, you need to find constructive ways to ‍spend ⁤your time if you’re⁢ not into drugs and heavy drinking,” he quipped.

Johnson never made it to Oregon. ‍Instead, he moved to Denver, where he initially worked for the city government, helping to ‌create technology efficiencies. He later transitioned to consulting work, eventually becoming a project manager for utility companies, assisting them in transitioning ​away from fossil fuels.

While in Denver,⁢ Johnson also ⁣participated in two food​ co-op startup initiatives, one of which successfully opened a physical store.

When his ⁢mother fell ill⁢ with liver disease, Johnson frequently traveled to the Capital Region to be with her. These trips also gave him a fresh perspective on Schenectady, ‍and he‌ was pleasantly surprised.

“The city had transformed into a pleasant place to ⁤live,” he recalled, noting ⁣the city’s walkability and the‍ emergence of new businesses.

Despite living nearly 2,000 miles away, Johnson joined ECCG, eager to help eliminate ⁢downtown Schenectady’s food-desert status. At the time, ⁣the co-op movement was experiencing fatigue ⁢due to the COVID pandemic, ⁣and ⁣Johnson’s ⁤new membership⁤ went unnoticed.

“After two months, I wondered, ‘Where’s my ‍welcome⁣ package?’ ‌” he recalled.

This lack of response motivated him to start attending ECCG’s virtual board meetings and consider how he could ⁢inject new energy into the initiative.

In August 2022, Johnson returned to Schenectady with his wife,⁣ Elizabeth ‌Walsh, a community ⁣and ‌regional planner who now serves as ECCG’s communications chair.

The following May, Johnson assumed the role of‍ ECCG’s board ‌president. He sees his role as both a cheerleader and a taskmaster.

“We have plenty of people helping to shape the vision,​ but I believe‍ my job is ⁤to share‌ that​ vision with the ‌public,” he explained.

Johnson’s ⁢past experience⁣ in grant management led ⁢him to suggest ⁢that the committee apply for American⁢ Rescue Plan Act funding. He and Walsh crafted a grant proposal that secured ⁣$1​ million from the city of Schenectady and $3 million from ⁢the county.

ECCG leadership is currently in​ talks ⁣with developers about two potential store locations, with 141 Erie Blvd. being the preferred choice, according to Johnson. Located at the corner of South Ferry Street, the site is⁣ large enough to accommodate a 12,000- to 14,000-square-foot grocery store and 100 parking spots. The ⁢location is also easily accessible via public transportation.

No membership‍ will be required to shop at the store,‍ which Johnson said will be a “full-service ⁣grocery” with a ​focus on affordably priced products. The store will ‍stock a range of items, ⁤from local agricultural products to imported goods, as well as everyday essentials like paper towels and toilet paper.

“Our goal is to ⁤make food accessible to everyone and⁤ offer a variety of products,” Johnson said.

In November, the co-op changed its name from Electric City Co-op to Electric⁣ City Community Grocery ⁣to emphasize ⁤inclusivity, a change made possible by a‍ grant from The Schenectady ⁤Foundation.

“In some communities, the terms⁣ ‘co-op’ or ‘cooperative’ can be intimidating, causing people to feel excluded. By‌ changing our name, we hope to make the co-op more welcoming ‍and inclusive,” Johnson⁢ explained.

While membership ⁣is optional, ‌ECCG⁤ member-owners do ⁢enjoy certain benefits.⁣ They can participate ‍in the organization’s governance and will receive a ‍patronage dividend based on profitability once the store is operational.

As of Jan. 1, 2023,‌ ECCG lowered‍ its membership fee from‍ a one-time contribution ⁣of⁣ $200 to $25. Since then, the number of member-owners has increased from 485 to over 1,000.

“Considering we’ve been working on‍ this for 10 years, this is a significant​ growth,” Johnson noted.

He ⁢believes his mother would⁣ be overjoyed⁣ with ECCG’s progress.

“She always⁤ believed that everyone has something to ‍contribute and that there’s ​room for everyone⁣ to make a civic difference. She ‍would be delighted⁢ to see​ that we’re empowering the​ community,” he said.

Johnson travels to California once a ⁤month for his work with Pacific Gas & ⁤Electric, somehow managing to devote 60 hours a ​week to that job and another 10⁣ to his duties ⁣as ECCG⁢ board president.

“I have no complaints,” he⁣ assured.

His term as board‍ president is for one year, with ‍the possibility of re-election.

“I ⁢would serve ​the maximum term allowed,” Johnson said, noting that he doesn’t want to hold the position ⁢indefinitely. ​“Our leadership team has done well, but I ‌would love to see other people take the lead. It’s truly a community effort.”

When Johnson has free time, he​ enjoys‍ going off-grid to recharge. He and Walsh are avid‌ long-distance⁣ hikers. They’ve hiked the ⁢567-mile-long Colorado Trail ⁢from Denver to Durango and the nearly⁢ 300-mile-long Benton MacKaye Trail in the ⁣Southern ⁣Appalachian Mountains.

“I’ve done a lot ‌of exploring⁣ in the ⁤rural canyons of Utah, and that’s where I ⁢plan to go the next chance I get because it’s ‌so peaceful,” he said. “It’s a great adventure.”

Johnson ‍is also a self-proclaimed ⁣“Swiftie” ​— a Taylor Swift fan. He’s considering trying to get tickets for ⁤a‌ 2024 show in Toronto.

“She’s a breath of ​fresh air,” he said,‌ recalling the fun he‌ had ⁤at her concert‍ in ‍Denver last‌ July. “I was moved to tears.⁣ It was ​an amazing experience filled with love and girl power.”

Reach freelance writer Kelly​ de⁢ la Rocha ⁤at ​delarochakelly@gmail.com.

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Kiara Thomas
Kiara Thomas
I uncover quirky and compelling stories. Always on the lookout for the 'why' behind the 'what'.
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