POSTED ON JUNE 29, 2011:
In a Blue Funk
A community-led co-op took over months ago, but love alone might not save a neighborhood market
Scott Smith looks back on the experiment he started three years in the Crosbie Heights neighborhood just west of downtown with mixed emotions.
Smith wanted to bring a small neighborhood market to a neighborhood where many residents had little or no access to healthy food. He opened the Blue Jackalope at 306 S. Phoenix Ave. in 2008 and, for the next two and a half years, operated it largely as a public service. The store not only offered fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and meats in a part of town where those kinds of provisions were difficult if not impossible to access, his market became a gathering spot for the neighborhood, the equivalent of a small-town café where residents linger for hours over cups of coffee and swap recipes, gossip and complaints.
In the process, Smith became somewhat of a local celebrity, a highly regarded champion not only of Crosbie Heights but a guy known for his tireless efforts to address the food desert issue across north and west Tulsa, where tens of thousands of impoverished residents have to travel miles and miles to purchase anything but fast food or junk food.
But the financial and physical grind of operating the store finally caught up with Smith. In debt, and worn down in body and spirit, he unceremoniously decided to close the doors March 13 and bring the experiment to a close.
"I didn't tell anybody about my decision because I didn't want anybody to talk me out of it," Smith said last week after arriving home from his new job in the quality assurance department of a local manufacturing company. It's quite a change for somebody who has spent most of the past three years bagging groceries, making deli sandwiches, brewing gourmet coffee, smoking ribs and building a sense of community in a place that previously had none. But Smith said the last three months have been good for him, allowing him to recharge his batteries.
"I feel really rested," he said. "A big weight has been lifted off my shoulders."
Best of all, the Blue Jackalope has survived, though its future remains as uncertain as ever. Shortly after Smith closed the market, several neighborhood leaders approached him, indicating they were interested in doing what they could to keep the store open. Smith explained to them that the store's assets were equal to its debt, and his plan had been to liquidate that inventory and pay off what he owed.
Instead, local residents formed several committees charged with overseeing various aspects of the store's operation, and two residents set up an LLC to handle the market's transition from Scott's property to a neighborhood cooperative. The Blue Jackalope reopened less than two weeks later, staffed by volunteers. Smith was hopeful that members of the community would make the store a success in a way he hadn't been able to.
But the ensuing three months have brought more doubts, he said.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people who were initially interested in it have backed off," he said. "They're struggling to keep the store open."
Smith remains a part of the market, stopping by for coffee occasionally and helping out on Sundays with the weekly barbecue.
"But usually by the end of the day, I'm worn out and have other things I'd rather be doing," he said.
Smith continues to have hopes that some sort of model for a successful healthy corner store can be established in North and West Tulsa, and he believes a neighborhood co-op could be that model, since it requires the involvement of the people it is designed to serve. As for the Blue Jackalope specifically, he said, "What it really needs is an infusion of capital. I think they're on the right track, but we'll have to see what happens."
And there's no point on waiting for outside entity to help, he said.
"To get the services needed in North Tulsa or West Tulsa, it's going to have to be some grassroots thing or a public-private collaboration to make something like that happen," he said.
Smith continues to monitor the various efforts that are being undertaken to bring healthy corner stores to the underserved areas of Tulsa and offer advice when it is sought. His immediate plans don't include jumping back into that effort himself, though he didn't rule that possibility out.
"I've kind of decided on a two and a half year plan to get my life in order so I can have a mid-life sabbatical," he said, explaining that he someday hopes to build his own house and his own airplane. "I want to take a vacation and go travel. I'm getting my financial affairs in order. But if the opportunity came long to do something positive in West Tulsa or North Tulsa, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't hesitate to jump on it."
Smith said he regrets that he wasn't able to make the Blue Jackalope a success, but he said he's gotten over that disappointment.
"I had a whole lot of love behind me," he said of the support he got from those inside and outside the neighborhood. "I felt like I was doing the right thing. I just couldn't make it work. I left behind a good legacy, though."
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