New Pioneer votes to pursue third location

By Gigi Wood

CORRIDOR – A new natural foods grocery store will likely open in the Corridor. Where and when that store will open remains a mystery.

But last week, New Pioneer Co-op announced it would pursue a third location. The company operates stores in downtown Iowa City and along the Coralville strip. New Pioneer Co-op members voted “yes” to pursue a third store in New Pioneer’s trade area or open a new downtown location for the Iowa City store. Members voted 2,514-239, or 90 percent, in favor of the measure.

New Pioneer has been looking for years for a new site to replace its existing grocery store at 22 S. Van Buren St., which is in a floodplain and grossly undersized for the company’s needs.

“The members gave a strong showing of support for the resolution that the board put forth and that is to open a third location somewhere in our trade area or to relocate the Iowa City location, should an opportunity in the downtown area present,” said Matt Hartz, New Pioneer’s general manager. “We’ve tried to be very clear that the most likely outcome is going to be a third store, because having worked for almost five years to relocate the Iowa City store in the downtown area, we just know how rare real estate opportunities are to accommodate something like that.”

A year, ago, New Pioneer members approved relocating its downtown Iowa City store a block away to the former Greyhound bus station at the northeast corner of Gilbert and College streets. The company had worked extensively with the city of Iowa City on finding a new store location downtown that would provide for a larger store, inventory and parking.

When the city asked for requests for proposals for redevelopment of the College/Gilbert streets site, New Pioneer was a finalist. But the city council approved a mixed-use residential high-rise with an independent movie theater for the corner. That put New Pioneer back at square one.

“Immediately after the city council’s decision to not select our project for the corner of College and Gilbert streets, we commissioned a market study, so we reviewed that and updated our financial model and saw that there is room in a number of areas to support another co-op,” he said.

New Pioneer members and residents have urged the company to stay near its current location, which is across the street from the city’s downtown farmers markets.

“The authorization was for a third store or relocating the Iowa City store, so we are evaluating opportunities right now in Cedar Rapids, in Marion, in North Liberty and in Iowa City,” he said. “We’re exploring some things on the east side (Iowa City) and the potential of Riverfront Crossings (southern end of downtown Iowa City).”

New Pioneer has given itself a three-year deadline to find a new location.

“We’re going to be very careful and methodical and make sure we have a number of good opportunities that we can evaluate next to one another before deciding on a preferred path or a preferred community,” Mr. Hartz said. “We certainly expect we’ll have multiple opportunities before three years are out, but we’re not setting a specific timetable because we want to make sure we make a good choice, not just a quick choice on a site.”

If New Pioneer was to enter a new community, there would be a number of factors to consider.

“There needs to be enough market share to support a store and we do know from our initial market study that there is enough volume in those communities that would provide enough sales to support a store,” he said. “But of course, there will be a number of criteria involved. One is the financial assessment, so anything we look at has to make New Pioneer stronger financially and be a sound economic investment. The second part of that is qualitative. We’ll have to be very thoughtful and engaged with the community and understand the implications for New Pioneer, how many new members we might have access to, proximity to existing members in order to serve them better and understanding some elements of the communities we would be looking at, such as what’s the zoning like, what are the plans, who would our neighbors be? Anywhere we go we want to make sure we add value and that we don’t detract. We want to strengthen the communities we go into.”

New Pioneer Cooperative Society was founded as a natural foods cooperative grocer in Iowa City in 1971, and opened its Coralville branch in 2001. New Pioneer had $8.7 million in sales before opening the Coralville store; now its annual sales are $24 million. Today, New Pioneer has more than 25,000 members.