To Market, To Market ... Or Not? Communities Need to Think Through Issues Surrounding Public Markets

March 31, 2005
By  Jean B MorisseauKuni

Jody Hardin displays some of the naturally grown fruits and vegetables he sells at the River Market in Little Rock, Ark.

Public markets have been a part of the American landscape since trading began on this continent. From those early beginnings, when they were a place where people went to buy life's necessities, public markets have evolved into specialty markets.

Farmers, crafters, restaurant owners, antique retailers and specialty foods vendors are among the small business operators who have embraced the concept of a public market as an inexpensive place to sell goods. Community leaders also see a public market as another venue they can support to help boost local sales and provide a space for small businesses to grow.

Establishing a new public market can be a winning situation for a community, existing businesses and vendors. A well-placed market can increase foot traffic to nearby businesses and keep money that would have been spent outside of the community in the community.

While community leaders might agree that a public market can be an economic boost to any streetscape, a market that is ill-placed or not well-regulated and well-managed can become a hornet's nest of unhappy customers and vendors.

Before allocating funds to support a new market, community leaders need to ensure that a market will be a welcome addition. Some questions they should ask include: Are there enough vendors interested? Will the market be for local products or will it include vendors and products from outside the community? Will the community support a market? Where is the best place to establish the market? Are businesses located near the proposed market site in favor of it? What regulations do they want to apply to the market?

A community that has an existing public market needs to ensure that the market is fulfilling the needs of the vendors, nearby businesses and the community. And market regulations must be enforced.

Communities need to investigate the availability of both government funding and local financial assistance for a public market. Funding assistance varies from state to state.

In addition, there are several federal programs, such as the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and the Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, that help low-income families and senior citizens who want to purchase fresh produce at a farmers' market.

Examples of public markets throughout the country abound. The three featured here were all created to address a different set of community needs, operate under different governmental regulations and have had different levels of success.

Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis: A Tradition

In the St. Louis area, Soulard Farmers Market is the oldest and largest public market. Located near downtown St. Louis in the historic Soulard neighborhood, the market opened in the early 1800s. Today, up to 70 vendors sell everything from produce to pets.

A walk through the buildings at the year-round market gives customers the feel of an international bazaar with a diverse group of vendors and customers, including many immigrants to St. Louis.

Arlene and Earl Kruse and their son, Steve, operate Kruse Gardens at Soulard Market. At their stand, customers can find organically grown fruit and vegetables, along with flowering plants and herbs. Arlene is the third generation of her family to operate a stand at the market.

"It's not easy to make a living selling at a market, but I have customers that I have been selling produce to my entire life. When you're that involved with both the customer and the produce, you want to give your best," Arlene says.

The American public is turning to farmers' markets for better quality produce, Arlene says. "They are tired of hothouse produce sold at the grocery stores. We pick everything the day before it's sold at market," she says. "You just can't compare the quality of a product that has been cultivated by hand to a product that was commercially produced."

The Kruses have made a niche for themselves by organically growing specialty foods that are not available at a grocery chain.

"I take a seed, plant it, nurture it, watch it grow, harvest it and sell it," Arlene says. "I guess you could say that this is my Rembrandt."

Old Town Market in Belleville, Ill.: Four Years Old and Going Strong

Old Town Market in Belleville, Ill., was developed four years ago as a way to provide local growers an inexpensive space to sell produce. The developers also hoped that the market would draw foot traffic to existing businesses in the downtown business district. Open every weekend from May through October, the open-air market is located on Main Street in a pocket park.

"It's been growing every year since we started," says Norm Geolat, market director. "We're always on the lookout for new vendors and activities. We want people to come, get some great deals on produce and see that Belleville is still a place to go."

Old Town Market has 12 vendors selling fruit, vegetables, homemade jellies and jams. Local artisans also sell quality handmade crafts and artwork. Each weekend, the market has live music and activities for children and provides space for community groups to promote their programs. "We want the market to be an event for the entire family, something for everybody," Geolat says.

A nearby business owner attests to the fact that the market has met its original goal of increasing foot traffic in the downtown area.

"Every weekend the market is open, new people visit our shop," says Gloria Smith, who along with her husband, Rod, owns the Crystal and Spice Shoppe in downtown Belleville.

"The market has been a really good catalyst to bring people downtown and spend money locally," she says. "People are now coming downtown and finding it's a great place to shop. Once they see the variety of unique shops and restaurants, they keep coming back."

River Market in Little Rock, Ark.: A Market District Development

The River Market concept was created to take advantage of the scenic charm of the Arkansas River, a public park and historic structures along Little Rock's riverfront. This example of a market district reflects the growth and variety of public markets throughout the United States. Both an indoor specialty shop market and an outdoor farmers' market, River Market marries existing elements with new structures, including an amphitheater, water park and event space.

Little Rock's River Market District is located downtown along the Arkansas River.

The indoor market is a medley of 17 permanent shops and restaurants that are open year-round. The outdoor market is open May through October and features more than 100 farmers selling in-season fresh produce. On Fridays while the outdoor market is open, local artists and craftsmen sell their creations at an event called "Art at the Market."

Shannon Light, the River Market's manager, says she is working to improve the market and overall is pleased with the market's growth.

Light says she would like to attract a more diverse group of vendors. "It would be nice to have a fish monger and a poultry vendor who, along with our current vendors, would help build a well-rounded market," she says. "I hope to see our market grow as it becomes better established. Like most markets, we perform best in the nice weather, but our foot traffic has continued to increase since we opened."

Two permanent vendors at River Market, Steve Brown and Jody Hardin, are working to make a go of it. Hardin also has been involved in planning a new market in Pine Bluff. (See related story.)

Brown runs a gourmet butcher shop, V.K. Brown's, which has been a part of the market since it opened. Hardin operates Hardin's River Mercantile, a farm stand that sells naturally grown fruit and vegetables.

"We opened our shop when the market opened in 1996 to celebrate 100 years in business for V.K. Brown Packing Co., a company founded by my grandfather," Brown says. The first three years the market was open, his shop enjoyed good sales, he says. However, sales have been declining every year since.

He says the decline in business is due to people tiring of traveling downtown to shop at the market. "The first couple years, the market was the place to be seen in Little Rock on Saturday, but now it's just another place," Brown says.

Hardin sees the market from the perspective of a new vendor.

"I waited five years to get this space and opened my indoor stand four months ago," he says. "I have a seasonal stand, but wanted to expand and offer naturally grown fruit and vegetables all year."

Hardin is meeting his low estimate of income earnings from his stand and is hopeful his business will improve. That could come to pass if the indoor market featured competing vendors, he says. Competition would give shoppers another reason to come to the market throughout the year.

Both vendors agree that they would like to see more publicity to attract vendors and customers to the market.

Start-Up Issues for Farmers' Markets

  • Start-up costs
  • Publicity and marketing
  • Location and existence of other nearby farmers' markets
  • Market charter issues: i.e., who can be a vendor, membership fees, products offered
  • Space assignments
  • Leadership and management—board members and market manager
  • Local and state regulations, such as standards for food handling
  • Licensing
  • Competitive pricing among vendors
  • Production and marketing experience of potential growers
  • Expectations, interest and support of the community, government officials, and commercial business people

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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