Elkins Park's tiny downtown has not been the same since Ashbourne Market closed in 2002.

Tucked into a commercial strip just a few blocks long, the market was more than a grocery with a big kosher section. For four decades, it was the convivial hub of the community, where neighbors gathered over bagels and lox on Sunday mornings.

Having lost their anchor, however, nearby stores began to falter. Others moved in - including a tasty shawarma joint - only to fail, too.

The strip was so barren, said Max Minkoff, that "you couldn't buy an apple" there.

But Minkoff and more than a dozen other enterprising Elkins Park residents believe they can change that.

After four years of stop-and-go planning, the group recently broke ground on a $4.1 million project that will repurpose the vacant Ashbourne Market as a 9,200-square-foot cooperative grocery, one of the largest such ventures in the region.

Set to open in the fall, the Creekside Co-op will focus on local and organic foods. It already has 1,300 member households that have bought $400 equity shares in the venture in exchange for discounts or rebates later.

But its founding board members envision something far grander than vine-ripened tomatoes. They see the community-powered revitalization of Elkins Park's commercial center.

They have projected a robust $5 million in revenue during the co-op's first year, helped along by foot traffic from the nearby SEPTA rail station. In turn, they say, the customer base will inspire other businesses to take a chance on the struggling area around High School Road.

Economic development is the "primary goal" of the Creekside project, said Adam Silverman, a board member and lawyer whose firm, Cozen O'Connor, did pro bono legal work for the nascent co-op.

The site, he said, is "a little crossroads that really has the potential to be something wonderful."

Creekside is arriving on the scene just as national and international attention is fixed on the movement. The United Nations has declared 2012 the Year of the Co-op. Across the nation, more than 150 communities are in the process of establishing resident-supported groceries, according to Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative, a nonprofit advisory group.

In the Philadelphia region, fewer than half a dozen co-ops are in operation. But that number is likely to grow, with projects in the works in Kensington and South Philadelphia, among other communities.

Creekside is furthest along.

Getting there, though, "has really has been a herculean effort," said Silverman.

The idea has been in the works since a community meeting at the local library in 2007. It was hosted by Weavers Way Co-op, a Mount Airy institution that had grown overcrowded since its founding in the 1970s. To relieve the crush, its leaders were mulling a second store in Elkins Park.

Although Weavers Way chose a Chestnut Hill location instead, support for a co-op in Elkins Park was intense; the meeting room was so full that the fire marshal had to clear it.

Afterward, residents decided to strike out on their own. They immediately ran into difficulty securing a $1.5 million loan guarantee from a federal Department of Agriculture rural development program, said co-op treasurer Fred Milbert.

(Yes, Cheltenham Township, which encompasses Elkins Park and hugs the Philadelphia-Montgomery County line, qualified as rural.)

The federal program typically helped municipalities fund purchases such as fire engines. It had never been tapped for a grocery store, and the co-op had difficulty getting a bank to underwrite the loan.

The board then tried another Agriculture Department program that would have provided an outright grant. When Creekside was rejected, its leaders appealed and won, but before a cent could be paid, the program ran out of money.

Finally, the co-op went back to the original loan program, this time finding an underwriter.

The rest of the financing, Milbert said, comes from a $1.7 million construction loan from the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit focusing on community revitalization.

Additionally, some member households have made loans to the co-op, amounting to more than $280,000.

Creekside has "done a really good job of building community support," said Reid, of the Food Co-op Initiative.

Its membership is expected to surpass 1,800 households by the September opening.

Cheltenham Township Commissioner Morton J. Simon Jr., whose ward includes the store, said the Elkins Park renaissance might already have begun.

A bookstore is set to open near the co-op, and a small restaurant around the corner is finally under construction, several years after winning zoning approvals.