Plans in the works to move to Columbia Boulevard location; fundraising and construction could take up to two years

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - The Columbia Pacific Food Bank has put in an offer to purchase the Columbia Electric Feed and Seed building later this year. Casey Wheeler, the food banks executive director, said he expects to close on the purchase in March. The Columbia Pacific Food Bank will likely be moving to a new location on Columbia Boulevard sometime over the next two years.

Casey Wheeler, executive director for the food bank, confirmed Wednesday, Jan. 3, the board of directors put in an offer to purchase the building that currently houses Columbia Electric Feed and Seed, which will ultimately be used as the food banks' main storage and distribution facility.

The feed store is expected to close later this year at its current location on Columbia Boulevard and Wheeler said the food bank expects to secure the property in mid-March.

While the plans are still preliminary, Wheeler estimates it will be at least two years before they will be able to fundraise the estimated $1.5 million it will take to upgrade the building and fully operate out of the new space.

If the purchase goes through, the new 12,500-square-foot location on Columbia Boulevard will be more centralized than the food bank's current location on Milton Way, and will be significantly larger than the current 2,500-square-foot space. The new site will also provide better access for people with disabilities and more parking in the area, Wheeler explained.

The new facility will require installation of basic items like freezers and coolers, but Wheeler said they also hope to create space that can be used for other services the food bank currently doesn't provide. One early idea, for example, is to have a repack room where volunteers can take items donated in bulk and break them down into smaller quantities before distributing them to food pantries throughout the county. Another is to build a kitchen space that could be used to teach cooking classes or offer food tastings of produce items.

"Sometimes clients are hesitant to take food because they don't know what to do with it," Wheeler said, adding that offering a place to take a cooking class to learn about that food could be helpful.

The board of directors plans to launch a capital fundraising campaign through a local credit union later this year. The board also plans to apply for grants to pay for the upgrades and will work with the Oregon Food Bank and local resources to find funding sources for the project.

The board of directors has been planning to move the food bank for the past four years, Wheeler explained, and has been able to set aside some funding each year to pay for the down payment on the new facility. The ultimate goal would be to sell the current building once it is no longer occupied to help pay off the mortgage on the new facility.

In 2017, Columbia Pacific Food Bank distributed more than 1 million pounds of food throughout the county, a new milestone for the public nonprofit, Wheeler said. While total numbers are not yet available, Wheeler noted that the number of children, seniors and homeless individuals in St. Helens served at the local food pantry increased dramatically last year, indicating a high need for the emergency food service in the county.

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