ST. ALBANS CITY, Vt. — Steve Martin is thrilled.
Soon after he became store operations manager at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery 11 years ago, administrators and directors sparked talks about a larger, bigger store for him to run.
A decade later, Martin beams as he watches workers build that 19,000-square-foot store at the co-op’s Federal Street site, in downtown St. Albans.
The structure is a far cry from the 10-by-10-foot store that originally stood at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which opened in 1919. Today, it is the only dairy co-op headquartered in milk-rich Vermont; the last was Cabot Creamery, which dissolved in a firestorm in the early 1990s.
“It’s great to be looking to the future and making long-term investments in the viability of our co-op,” Martin said in November, while seated in the co-op boardroom with Tom Gates, co-op relations manager.
The store marks the first major project at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery since construction of a 64-foot evaporator in 1985. St. Albans City (pop. 7,700) is abuzz with downtown revitalization, and local officials credit three underway projects with boosting the city’s economy: an expansion at Mylan Technologies, a pharmaceutical company; plans for new state offices; and the cooperative creamery store.
“We’re growing and expanding with the growth around us, and we’re in agriculture,” Martin said. “That’s a good sign, but history has shown that milk production has endured through thick and thin.”
St. Albans City is a historically railroad-reliant community, so Franklin County, Vt., farmers in the late 1800s sensibly established a creamery association on Federal Street. They shipped their butter to Boston from a cold storage building on the 3.5-acre co-op property, via railroad tracks that still kiss the site; and they’re still active.
Today, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery has about 440 farmer members in Vermont, western New Hampshire and northeastern New York. The co-op assimilated the Independent Dairyman’s Association in the early 2000s, according Gates.
All 440 members are eligible to vote at the co-op’s annual February meeting — a unique governing structure for Northeast dairy co-ops that usually use delegate systems, Gates said. Held in St. Albans, the annual meeting attracts 700 to 800 people, including federal dairy reps and Vermont’s congressional delegation: Sen. Pat Leahy, a Democrat, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, and Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat.
About 40 to 45 percent of the 1.25 billion pounds of milk marketed at the co-op annually is generated into skim, condensed or powdered milk on Federal Street. The other 55 to 60 percent is sold direct from the farm to co-op customers. A seven-member board oversees the co-op and its administration.
“All of our members are within a three-hour radius of our plant,” Gates said. “And half of our milk supply still comes from Franklin and Addison counties (in northwestern and central Vermont).”
The store has always operated as a separate business entity under the co-op and eventually grew to 3,000 and then 10,000 square feet.
The co-op store ships about 20 tons of product a week to customers in New England and upstate New York through its popular Direct Ship Program, which offers 24-hour delivery.
With the new store, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery campus will grow from 4 to 17 acres. The co-op bought nearby railroad property and nine dilapidated Federal Street homes — of which six were occupied — to accommodate the project.
Connor Contracting, the St. Albans-based project manager, started work on the store last April. The project will have employed 18 subcontractors and more than 100 full-time construction workers when doors open next April.
“Originally, we considered some off-site possibilities,” Gates said, “but at the end of the day, when we wanted to serve our members best, we knew we had to have it on site.”
The store will grow its gamut-running line of products, from human and pet food to farm and home supplies. Martin hopes for a $1 million to $1.5 million boost in sales in the first year, and a similar growth pattern afterward.
“You think of a farm store — that’s us now,” he said. “I think we’re going to be a destination store.”
As shoppers walk through the new store, they will be connected to the past, present and future of farming, with antique equipment and signage and interactive, digital displays. The store will also promote Quality Award programs and local, state and regional dairy events.
“And we’re going to have a walk-in cooler,” Martin said.
There will also be a new conference room that, with a 50-person seating capacity, could be the region’s hub for agricultural meetings.
The co-op’s administrative offices are also moving to the new store, which will free up space in the small, red-brick building where Leon Berthiaume leads the co-op’s 75 employees.
“Our cooperative store is committed to serving the needs of agriculture and dairy farmers into the future,” said Berthiaume, co-op general manager. “The new store operations will allow us to better serve our dairy farmers throughout the region and our local community.”