WALPOLE — Plans to build a food co-op in town continue in 2019 as the founding president retakes the helm and expresses confidence that the project is “getting close.”

The Great River Co-op’s board of directors elected Alstead resident Steve Fortier president with the start of the new year. He had served in that role from December 2010 until 2014.

His predecessor, Kimberly S. Mastrianni of Langdon, now serves as the organization’s treasurer.

Fortier explained that the restructuring was a strategic move to refocus the group’s efforts. Mastrianni’s professional background is in finance, he said, and the board needs to “work on the capital budget, and that’s right in Kim’s wheelhouse; that’s her greatest strength.”

And the timing was perfect for Fortier. He works as Keene State College’s director of external relations, but for the past year has also served as its interim director of alumni relations. As this temporary role winds down, Fortier said, he’ll have more time to devote to his volunteer work and projects with the co-op.

The Great River Co-op proposal has evolved since it was first announced in 2010.

The original version called for an expansive compound with a 28,000-square-foot market and a housing development for senior citizens. After a feasibility study, the board of directors scaled back its goals to the current plan of a store with about 3,000 or 4,000 square feet and some room to grow.

By comparison, the Monadnock Food Co-op in downtown Keene is more than 13,000 square feet.

The Great River board aims to build the facility off Route 12 between The Hungry Diner and Pinnacleview Equipment Inc.

Membership in the co-op has fluctuated over the years. The project launched with a target of 1,000 members, though Fortier said that was an arbitrary goal. In 2011, there were about 420 members, but growth slowed and plateaued for several years, hitting only 540 in 2014.

“I think, like any project, there’s a lot of initial excitement; so we had this big burst of membership early on,” Fortier said.

There are nearly 800 member-owners now, he added.

Mastrianni told The Sentinel last April that it took a few years for the board to attract volunteers with the right skills for the project, rather than just area residents who wanted to see the co-op come to fruition.

Aside from getting the right people in place, the venture has also faced the difficulty of having an audience that’s spread throughout several communities surrounding Walpole.

“Co-ops require an active, engaged ownership, so that’s been a challenge,” Mastrianni said in April. “But we’ve got a better handle (on it).”

As for the membership goal, Mastrianni told The Sentinel the 1,000-member target would indicate support and show financial institutions and potential lenders a solid base of interest in the project. To ask for funding, she said, an organization needs a “critical mass” of investors.

Along with the leadership change, the Great River board also established four committees based on priorities moving forward in 2019 and sent a newsletter to fellow member-owners asking for their participation.

The committees are finance; marketing and communication; financial development; and farmer-producer-vendor outreach.

“And that’s where the work will really get done over the next six months,” Fortier said of these smaller groups.

For future projections, the board has turned to a consultant that specializes in co-ops to conduct research on the town, region and demographics. Until that work is done, Fortier said there’s no estimated groundbreaking.

“I think it would be irresponsible, I guess, to lay out a timeline without first looking at those numbers,” he said. “... We’ll get the numbers and then we’ll have a clear path and timeline for moving forward.”

With nearly a decade under his belt on this project, Fortier said he thinks the co-op has plenty to offer the Walpole area. As an example, he said, it would help the regional economy by keeping shopper dollars local.

Fortier also values the nutritional benefits of getting food from a co-op.

“For me, it’s very important for the health of our communities that we have access to fresh local produce and other food items, for all the reasons that we know that that helps contribute to positive health outcomes,” he said.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SierraHubbardKS.