The Ashland Food Cooperative expanded in July with the purchase of two adjacent buildings, and more acquisitions will be necessary if the store is to cope with future growth, store officials said.

The new buildings, located at 300 N. Pioneer St., will likely house additional office space or the community classroom when the lease expires in about two and a half years on the current classroom building on A Street, General Manager Richard Katz said.

"Unfortunately (the purchase) didn't solve our biggest problems," Katz said. "We would love to have more parking for our customers and more retail space in our store. ... It would be nice to have some elbow room."

The co-op has grown steadily, and although growth has slowed with the economic downturn this year, the purchase fit into the company's long-term plans for expansion, he said.

When it moved into the current location between Pioneer and First streets in 1993, the company had 50 employees, Katz said. Now there are 160 employees and 5,600 household memberships, which include individuals and entire families.

The entire store is 17,500 square feet, with 11,000 square feet of retail space. The two new buildings, currently home to medical offices, will add just 3,300 square feet and a few additional parking spaces.

The board waited to purchase the property until Erik Wallbank, owner of the two buildings, finished his term as president and was no longer a board member, Katz said.

"The whole time I was on the board, we talked about trying to acquire buildings on the same block because our business is growing," Wallbank said, who built the offices in 1991. "I decided to sell them because they made me a good offer."

The board would also like to purchase the adjacent Umpqua Bank property should it ever become available, Katz said. There are no plans to move to a larger property, however.

"We'd love to be able to keep working with what we've got," he said.

Shoppers say the crowds aren't enough to keep them from making frequent visits.

"I think it's doing well the size that it is, but I can imagine the situation being a little pressured over the next couple of years," said Alexander Alexis, who visits the store three to four times per week. The store functions as a community gathering place and will continue to attract people despite its size, he said.

Mary Zarc, who splits her time between Ashland and San Francisco, said the store and parking lot is crowded only by small-town standards.

"I've never had so much trouble parking that I find it stressful," she said. "It could be a little tighter than any of the other grocery stores with bigger lots."

The inside is more of a problem, especially during rush hours, Zarc said.

"It's a tight store," she said. "People are always bumping into each other."

Expanding the store, however, might not alleviate the congestion, she said, reasoning that a larger store would attract more people and more crowds.

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