Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Herald's Chicken: The Herald As Maoist Pamphlet

posted by chicago pop

Herald Editor Rallies Remaining Co-Op Members to Give $100 Each

As anyone who has visited China recently can attest, there are probably more Maoists on the editorial board of Hyde Park Herald than are in the Red East. I credit at least one of them with the following statement, written in the Herald's editorial on saving the Co-Op (November 7, 2007):

"Cooperatives are designed to follow a set of principles [undoubtedly published in some little book somewhere] that include a commitment to community. Don't expect a national chain to be guided by anything but profit."

It may indeed be possible to put aside the expectation of profit; no one has received a Co-Op dividend in a while. The problem, however, is that the Co-Op's kind of commitment to the community has left us with a grocery store that cannot pay its bills.

Mao thought that if every Chinese peasant melted their iron utensils, China could exceed the UK's steel production in 15 years without having to import foreign machinery. Likewise, the Herald would like for the remaining members (including the dead, those who have moved, or who are inactive -- they may all still be on the Co-Op's corrupt membership rolls) to chip in "less than $100 per member" to generate the $3 million it will take to "wipe out debt" without having to take out a loan.

The similarities don't end there. This week's editorial fails to grasp the financial realities of the Co-Op's situation. In fact, it indulges in the kind of homespun economics, unburdened by the constraints of having to make other people's money pay for itself, that got Mao in trouble. Like a dangerously misinformed ministry of planning, the Herald manages to inflate some numbers while fantasizing about others.

Take the inflated membership rolls of the Co-Op, for example, with "membership somewhere around 35,000." If all these folks simply dug in their pockets, shouldn't we be able to save the Co-Op? Unfortunately, given all the known problems with the Co-Op's record keeping, putting this number out there without substantiation is like boosting the figures on grain output from the local agricultural commune to please the Party chief.

For one thing, the Co-Op's membership database is so corrupt that the Board literally has no idea who is or is not a member, who is active or inactive, or who is dead.

Further, as was hazily revealed in July of 2007, the Co-Op somehow "lost" the computer in which the membership database was stored -- whether this "loss" means the computer failed, was trashed by monkeys, or got put in the washing machine, is unclear. But given the extent of the problems afflicting the Co-Op's membership rolls, the figure of 35,000 is a not a reliable benchmark for fundraising efforts.

Co-Op Worker Holds Corrupt Membership Rolls

Now let's move on to the Herald's One Month Plan to raise $3,000,000 to "wipe out debt." Not only will this money supposedly erase the Co-Op's enormous debt burden, but there will be enough left over to go towards "capital improvements on 55th Street." All problems solved.

We suspect that, regardless of their ideological leanings, the monkeys that trashed the Co-Op's computer might have a greater appreciation for the fact that, even if the masses were to achieve this goal, it would do nothing to address the fundamental problem of the $90,000/month rent due on the 47th Street property, which is not going to go away no matter how much "debt" is "wiped out" through charitable donations.

So how did the Herald come away from its courtly reception of Poueymirou thinking that "the loan was intended not only to wipe out debt -- including the debilitating lease on the shuttered 47th Street store," when that lease runs until the 2023 and is not a debt but a lease commitment totaling $16,000,000? Is this kind of incomprehension one of the cooperative principles vaunted in its editorial?

The Herald has never bothered too much about informing us as to the inner workings of the Co-Op, which should come as no surprise, given its disinterest in anything "guided ... by profit." In this case, that editorial disinterest translates into editorial disability. Whatever principles you follow, no one wants to lose money; but that's exactly what these kinds of plans will lead to.

That the Herald's editors should, in such circumstances, beat the fundraising drum when there are a number of people who will likely never recover the value of their Co-Op shares, demonstrates what happens when a neighborhood paper becomes more of a hobby for the ideologically obsolescent, than an exercise of critical journalism.

Youthful Co-Op Members Enjoy Bounties of Produce Department


Elizabeth Fama said...

Does anyone know how the Co-Op board is going to determine who is an eligible voter for this issue?

Erik said...

This is a bit ridiculous. Resorting to childish associations with Maoism adds no value to the conversation. You might not agree, but many people feel that a community owned and operated store, where money stays in the neighborhood, is preferable to a corporate chain store which vacuums money out of the community. The Coop is absolutely good enough for anybody's needs. A food store does not have to be shiny, trendy and greedy to do its job. The service isn't good enough? Not enough groveling and smiling for the customer? Not a pretty enough building? Please. Saving a neighborhood institution is worth having to tolerate something different than Whole Foods (or other stores catering to the vanities of people who believe they are entitled to deep, spiritual satisfaction when buying cheese and bread). That the coop is poorly managed is a shame, but dumping it for a soulless corporate chain is a cop out and weak.

Elizabeth Fama said...

This isn't the first time someone has said the Co-Op keeps money in the neighborhood, whereas another store would suck it out, and it's an economic claim I don't understand. Can you be specific about how the Co-Op benefits our community financially, and how a corporate chain would take dollars out of the neighborhood?

deep throat said...

Erik said "You might not agree, but many people feel that a community owned and operated store, where money stays in the neighborhood, is preferable to a corporate chain store which vacuums money out of the community."

Where do I start??!! What money are you referring to? The Co-Op hasn't actually made any profits since it embarked on the bone-headed expansion plan, and is now drowning in red ink and burning through any cash flow generated and then some. All the Co-Op has managed to accomplish in the last five years is flush all the $$$ invested by members down the toilet. Is that the money you're talking about? The current situation isn't about a corporate store vacuuming money out of the community, but the local (and supposedly) community-minded store sucking its the community members dry to fund ill-fated delusions of grandeur.

Is squeezing blood out of the HP community preferable to sending profits to headquarters, in your view?

Please keep in mind that the most common reason for Co-Op members cashing in their shares over the last year (based on board minutes from 9/06 through 8/07) is "personal financial" reasons.

For members who have already lost the hundreds or thousands of dollars they've spent on Co-Op shares, are you suggesting that having them throw away more good money after bad to save a "neighborhood institution" is better than bringing in a chain store that actually might turn a profit? By the way, if any publicly-traded grocer were to open up operations in HP, everyone is free to buy shares and become "owners" of that business and have claim to a share of the profits.

As to whether the Co-Op is adequate, if you consider moldy cheese acceptable (the last time I bought a block of cheese at the Co-Op), then the Co-Op might be good enough for your standards. But, my grocery standards include a minimum level of freshness that the Co-Op wasn't able to deliver on.

chicago pop said...

The argument that the Co-Op is justified because it keeps money in the neighborhood is simply not in touch with the facts.

The Co-Op is draining money out of the neighborhood on a massive scale on account of it's indebtedness. In fact, it is emptying the pockets of people who have invested in it and are unable to redeem their shares. Because so many shoppers are dissatisfied with it, they go elsewhere for groceries, in effect doing exactly what the Co-Op is supposed to keep them from doing, which is shopping in the neighborhood.

The argument that the Co-Op keeps money in the neighborhood -- even assuming that were realistic or somehow beneficial -- demonstrates the extent to which supporters of this failed principle of economic self-sufficiency are -- after all that we know about the finances of the institution -- living in a fantasy world.

No neighborhood is an island.

LPB said...

It seems like some folks believe it is most important to preserve the concept of the cooperative, even at the expense of a clean, well-run, well-stocked grocery store. And others would rather have a clean, well-run, well-stocked grocery store at expense of the cooperative.

Erik wants to save the neighborhood institution, but I'd ask why it's worth saving in the first place. What's so great about it today? What does it add to the community today? What kind of "soul" does it have anyway? All I see is withered produce and monkeys trashing the membership computer (and other assorted operational problems). At this point, I'd take a sterile but clean and well-stocked grocery store over the dysfunction and drama of the Co-Op.

I understand that some old timers may have very fond memories and associations with the Co-Op. But, it's far from clear that what the Co-Op has become today is anything close to what the community needs in a grocery store going forward. The Co-Op has had the last five years to fix things. It's time to move on.

chicago pop said...

Here we have a classic example, in Erik's letter, of someone claiming to speak not just for "the community", but for its needs as well.

"The Coop is absolutely good enough for anybody's needs."

It's a scary kind of community that starts buying into that kind of thinking.

deep throat said...

The Herald's editorial failed to appreciate (or even notice??) that the on-going lease obligation to Certified for the 47th Street space will come to a whopping $17.3 million -- that's $1.08 million annually through 2023. So, assuming the Evergreen's 22,000 membership count is correct, the Herald should be asking each member to shell out $923 to pay off the $3 million in existing obligations, as well as the $17.3 million in future obligations.

Let's see how well that flies with the membership.

Raymond said...

I used to feel like Erik does. I even wrote a letter to the Evergreen a few years back extolling the Co-op's virtues. But, nothing has improved since then and there's no sign of progress or hope. Bankruptcy, rehab, buyout from the University...I'll take any of those options over the status quo or a crazy capital drive that would probably raise about $20,000.

Remember, the Co-op has been encouraging people to buy extra shares for years. It doesn't look like that was too successful.

Elizabeth Fama said...

My parents were (irate) members of the Co-Op back in the day when the board announced that it would stop paying dividends to customers in order to invest in a Scandinavian Design furniture store ("Scan") in Harper Court (where the current Checkerboard lounge is).

It was an ill-fated investment that helped neither the community nor the Co-Op's membership.

I was a member for 20 years, and I got miniscule dividends (on the order of $60-$100, if I remember correctly) for maybe three of those earlier years, even though I spent tens of thousands a year at the store.

If a supposedly soulless corporate entity cares enough about my business to work hard for me and provide good products, that's a transaction I can live with.

I agree with C-Pop's comment about north-side shopping, too. I use Peapod now, so my dollars are "going" to Skokie (or is it Amsterdam?). And my tips are going to Neo.

Shane said...

I discovered this blog the other day and I was very excited. I am frequently amazed at the opinions expressed in the HPH which seem ignorant beyond belief. I always wondered if the opinions expressed truly represented the opinions of Hyde Parkers or if the Herald specifically chose certain letters to publish.

That being said, I am a little disappointed to read this most recent article. This is as extreme and ridiculous as the letters I read in the Herald, if in the opposite direction.

I support progress in Hyde Park, and name calling and hyperbole is not the way to get there. I understand this is a blog, not a newspaper, but if I may add my two cents, I prefer the fact based reporting that I’ve seen in some of the other articles on the site. (I admit I haven't had a chance to read very many!)

Famac said...

I feel even more hopeless about the Co-Op given Poueymirou's visit to the Herald. Maybe I'm too cynical (say its not true!!) but I would bet my last dollar that capital plan rolled right off this guy's tongue.

Does Poueymirou draw salary from the Co-Op?

Erik says: "A food store does not have to be shiny, trendy and greedy to do its job."

Sorry, I disagree - if shiny is a word you're using for clean. And if its going to cost as much as Whole Foods -- at least they are giving you shiny and trendy for free.

Scott's Not So Great Books said...

The "local" investment of the Co-Op was non-existent if not blatently negative (don't forget that the booksale $'s went back into the Co-Op in recent years and even the HPNC pancake breakfast was mostly supplied through vendor donations rather than Co-Op donations.)

I hope that membership and the board choose the quick death.

(The other part of this is the
lack of a source for DIP financing the Co-op would need to survive bankruptcy.)

The questions that remain for me are how do the Certified liabilities workout without bankruptcy (I suspect they have first chair in any bankruptcy proceedings) and how much longer will it take HP Produce to open the new store since they couldn't look for a better opportunity.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Welcome, Shane. I'm glad to hear a new voice, but I disagree about the tone of the Maoist piece.

First, as you point out, it's a blog, and blogs poke more fun, are edgier, and more opinionated than straight investigative reporting. I think this blog would be boring without biting satire. (In a proper frame of mind, even Peter Rossi's rants can be entertaining!)

Second, the problem with Hyde Park activism lately is that it's deadly serious, close-minded, sometimes shrill, and thoroughly devoid of levity -- which discourages people with other opinions from expressing them.

I've already seen people starting to open up more on this blog -- whereas they were afraid before to challenge any of the supposedly established "community" views.

I think Chicago Pop would be thrilled if someone else started a blog that had only fact-based reporting and discussed these same issues in purely serious tones. Starting discussions is the order of the day. But I suspect the HPP readership comes here not just for the news, but also for the Mao images -- to laugh, to wince, or to let their blood boil about how ridiculous the HPP bloggers are.

chicago pop said...

The irony here is that if I called someone in Beijing a Maoist, they would laugh and try to sell me something; if I did the same thing in Hyde Park, they'd get pissed and try to buy some Co-Op shares.

This is one of the most polite blogs in existence, unless this is the sort of thing people are more used to

LPB said...

Shane, I believe the difference between this blog and the Herald is that Chicago Pop has made it clear that the blog employs tongue-in-cheek satire (which readers like myself find very entertaining). The Herald does not aim for satire, but it still comes across as joke at times (which isn't nearly as entertaining).

Richard Gill said...

Elizabeth, you're right: Current Hyde Park activism is totally devoid of levity, and that's what makes it so scary--they truly believe their stuff. LPB points out that this blog, in contrast, is intended to be a bit satirical and entertaining. Let's keep it that way. I think maybe the Co-op should be clad in limestone. That'll make it better.

chicago pop said...

If the Co-Op's future is put to a shareholder vote, they may make maximum effort to keep the beast afloat, causing the community to suffer with the Co-Op even longer, until the day its rotting corpse sinks into the earth, creating a gravitational sink hole that pulls in Harper Court, the Cove, Village Foods, that crazy dude who walks around with a diamond-shaped mirror in front of his face cursing at people, and a few pieces of limestone from the point (the ones that weren't already salvaged to decorate the Co-Op). (credits to KS for this one...)

Shane said...

Well, I think I agree with everything everybody said in response to my comment. As I said, I understand this is a blog. Newspapers should be held to a much different standard (should). And as I said I haven't read many articles, so perhaps I just didn't catch the tone.

One thing that is very encouraging to me is the comments on the articles. Usually on the Internet, the comment section is a horrible rotten place full of bullies and people hiding behind anonymity. Here, I don’t find that to be the case; the comments are indeed very polite.

Otto said...

that crazy dude who walks around with a diamond-shaped mirror in front of his face cursing at people

Throckmorton's still around? When did he get a mirror rather than a piece of cardboard? Haven't seem him in years.

nate said...

Hey, that crazy dude with the diamond-shaped thingy is absolutely crazy enough for anybody's needs.

More on topic, this article at Chicago Business has more quotes from Hank "Looking for a Legacy" Webber.

Elizabeth Fama said...

C-Pop, I draw the line at poking fun of Coward-Sicky-Loser (the man with the umbrella). Even though he accosts people verbally, the poor man is clearly ill. But he IS a Hyde Park icon, which may have been your point.

P.S. he recently called my dog "Puppy Coward," and for once he was right.

chicago pop said...

Hey, he's a feature.

chicago pop said...

Kudos to nate for tipping us off to the Crain's article outlining Hank Webber's "offer you can't refuse":

“We’re willing to make a substantial investment provided the end result is a high-quality grocer,” said Hank Webber, vice-president for community and government affairs. “We have had expressions of strong interest from major grocers. It is clear this is very attractive to many grocers.”

Strong interest from major grocers??? WHOO HOO!

Famac said...

Elizabeth started with: "Does anyone know how the Co-Op board is going to determine who is an eligible voter for this issue?"

This is a great point!

If the database is lost, how can any vote be binding?

chicago pop said...

If anyone wants to influence the upcoming Co-Op vote, they're going to have to mobilize the dead membership.

catuca48 said...

Locally owned and operated stores can contribute to the local economy. However, the Co-op actually has the opposite impact on the neighborhood. The leakage from HP (amount of money that leaves neighborhood & is spent elsewhere) because people do not find the Co-op satisfactory is staggering. Once a consumer goes to Roosevelt Road or the internet for groceries one can readily make many other purchases that one could have done in Hyde Park.

The deterioration of the Co-op over the last few years has also had a significant impact on the neighborhood's image and residents' confidence and outlook about the neighborhood. What does it say about a community if it does not have a decent supermarket?

Lastly, I would like to suggest that with the exception of the Seminary CO-op & 57th Street Bookstore, many of Hyde Park's 'alternative' ownership structures like the Harper Court Foundation/ HP Court Arts Council or the Kimbark Plaza Shopping Center which is also a co-op with 13 owners, may have also outlived their usefulness.

Elizabeth Fama said...

The Crain's article that Nate pointed us to says "2,600 members" are eligible to vote. That must be a typo for 26,000, and I assume Poueymirou gave the reporter that number.

The process of the vote already troubles me. Save-the-X activists are good at drumming up signatures and voters, whereas customers who abandoned the Co-Op (some so many years ago they may have forgotten their memberships) might not vote.

chicago pop said...

Interesting how Crain's -- a real newspaper -- would run a number that, even granting that it was a typo and meant to read 26,000, is still 9,000 less than the Herald's 35,000, since the Herald supposedly had their source (Poueymirou) sitting in front of them. And this is to say nothing of the problem of determining who is eligible to vote at all, which the Herald doesn't even touch.

The Co-Op board is going to have to do a lot of work very fast to make this election the least bit credible.

Eric Rojas said...

I have had several clients move to the area for their affiliation in one way or another with the University of Chicago.

This post and the history unraveled of the Co-Op is interesting to anyone really, but helps these people get a well rounded sense of the "forces" in the neighborhood.

We have been dumbfounded by the lack of development and quality retail surrounding such a famous institution as they look for a place to buy.

I really enjoy reading this blog. ...takes the mystery out of of a Hyde Park that many "out siders" (I'm originally from Rogers Park) consider an isolated island in Chicago.

It is on my recommended reading list for new-comers looking at the area and linked to my blog.

Dana said...

Love the Maoist analogy! My favorite part of the post:

"Unfortunately, given all the known problems with the Co-Op's record keeping, putting this number out there without substantiation is like boosting the figures on grain output from the local agricultural commune to please the Party chief."

Ah, my modern Chinese history course has some application. :)

When I first moved to HP in June of 2006, I briefly considered buying Co-op stock: might as well feel like part of the community, right? But with my general displeasure with the store as a whole (dead flowers, rotten produce, etc.), I thought the investment would be wasted and half-hearted.

Hyde Park most definitely needs more businesses (Jimmy Johns quite frequently gets my sandwich dollars since they've opened), and I believe the much-needed death of the Co-op will help this dream be realized.