Well well, we’ll welcome the Well, guest blog compliments of Jeff Leiper

 

Submitted by Jeff Leiper on 

The West End Well held its third (packed) info session this afternoon, and it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement that’s been building since they’ve begun publicizing the project.

The Well has an excellent web site online now atwestendwell.ca that will provide you with an excellent overview of the multiple uses proposed for the facility at 969 Wellington Street West. It’ll incorporate a grocery, cafe, meeting space, office space for aligned social enterprises, CSA (community supported agriculture) drop-off, and, hopefully, a regular series of storytelling/singer-songrwriter entertainment.

The project seems to have a everything working for it – most importantly a group of private investors who have purchased the property specifically with the intention of leasing it on reasonable terms to the Well, which operates as a separate, legally incorporated for-profit cooperative. With the HoldCo paying the mortgage, the path to sustainability for the Well itself is a lot clearer, though it won’t be entirely smooth sailing. It anticipates a few hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating losses through the first five quarters, and has a plan to fund those losses through the sale of preference shares to raise the necessary capital. I suspect even if it falls short of plan on that fundraising, having such an aligned landlord will get it through some early rough waters.

Building on a pretty secure financial footing, the Well has already found ways to mitigate its costs. For example, at the meeting, Bill Shields noted that they found an interior wall they could remove was insulated on both sides – the insulation will be re-used when the wall comes down to protect the exterior walls, saving the cost of purchasing new materials. Their architect Anthony Leaning, working with a kitchen consultant, has found ways to save enough money on electricity that a third service into the building won’t be necessary. All along the line, the Well has benefited from happy accident, sweat equity, and the generosity of a network of social enterprises and like-minded individuals.

It remains to be seen, now, how the Well will fare in meeting the needs of the community and operating on a sustainable financial basis. The intention with respect to retail food sales is to offer locally-produced, organic and sustainable food at prices that aren’t a barrier to anyone being able to buy it, and while paying employees a living wage. As Kirsten Brouse explained at this afternoon’s open house, there’s no template for balancing the economic tensions between all these goals. Without the pressure of a private landlord seeking maximum rent, or shareholders seeking maximum returns, the Well’s goals look more achievable, but it will still be a tall order. Much will depend on whether Hintonburg (traffic is expected to be on foot or bicycle) responds to the offering.

I tend to think it will be pretty successful. Hintonburg has both a very well-to-do, but progressive demographic, as well as a significant demographic of households who will need the kind of affordable but healthy food the Well intends to offer. There are thousands of households within a couple of kilometers radius’ in Centertown, Hintonburg, Mechanicsville and West Welligton to serve as the Well’s market. And, as the proponents point out, foot traffic past the location will only grow in the coming years.

The Well will also have the luxury of time to find its market. The single biggest capital investment is in the hands of angels. Even if the principals in the HoldCo don’t see a massive rental revenue stream coming in at first, the capital asset is probably ripe for rapid appreciation given its location, which should encourage patience.

All in all, as Shields told those at this afternoon’s event, the stars are absolutely aligned for this project. The right neighbourhood, with the right investors, and the right market. I’m really looking forward to their March opening, and to hearing how their plans evolve until then.

 

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