The Belfast City Council voted unanimously to waive $11,885 in building permit fees for the community co-op’s year-long renovation project, citing the store’s history and role supporting local businesses and nonprofits.
The City Council, which has the unique authority to grant permit fee waivers, approved the Belfast Community Co-op’s request during a meeting Tuesday night.
Doug Johnson, the co-op’s general manager, told the council the renovations to the nearly 60-year-old building will improve customer experience and keep the for-profit business operating long term.
“This is more about the survival of the co-op and not necessarily about something that we’re doing just to make it pretty,” Johnson told the council.
The council agreed to waive the co-op’s building permit fees, a small but sizable portion of the business’ overall renovation costs, because of the role the Belfast Community Co-op has played in the community during the past 47 years. The co-op has grown to include a membership with more than 4,800 people in a town of around 7,000.
The Belfast Community Co-op first announced the $6.4 million project in January, and is planning to break ground on the renovations May 15. The building won’t fully close during renovations. Instead, certain sections will be closed off in phases to allow customers to access the rest of the co-op while construction continues.
Johnson said he was surprised by the “overwhelming support” he heard from the council.
“The bigger message is that the city is behind us, and the city sees the value the co-op has added into this community for the past 47 years,” Johnson said.
Councillor Neal Harkness said at the meeting that his support for waiving the fees was influenced by the role the co-op plays in the community as a place for local farmers and growers to buy and sell products, as a place for new businesses to catch their first break selling products and through collecting funds for local non-profit organizations.
“It’s not a question of supporting the co-op, it’s a question of what the co-op supports,” Harkness said.
In the past year, the co-op has raised more than $61,000 for local nonprofits through donations at the register, a number cited by multiple councilors as an example of how the co-op gives back to the community.
Councilor Mary Mortier said at a time when other longtime downtown businesses are closing, the city should be proactive in providing support to a “foundation of the community” like the co-op.
“I think there comes a time when we have to look at the big picture,” Mortier said. “The economic development and the money that is put back in this community in other ways far exceeds that $11,000 in permit fees.”
The renovation project has been in planning for more than six years. Once completed, it will increase the size of the co-op’s retail space by a third, update the building’s electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems for the first time since the building’s construction, and will also improve fire detection and prevention as well as security systems.
The co-op is funding the project through a $4 million construction loan from the Cooperative Fund of the Northeast, in partnership with Coastal Enterprises and the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund, as well as over $1.5 million in owner loans and donations.