Saturday, July 3, 2010

Terms of Public Market Endearment

South Perry great example of a market gone right

By Paul K. Haeder

There were more than 17 vendors or sellers at the opening of the South Perry Thursday farmer’s market, June 3, 2010, in its new location at The Shop. Market director Brian Estes saw the day as a good omen, with the weather, the number of first-day sellers and the crowds getting high marks. He’s open to squeezing in another 11 stalls if need be.

It was clear some sort of magic was present, for that 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. market explosion. Organizers of Spokane Public Market are hoping for similar magic, even with a larger project with a broader set of goals.

David O’Neil is the guru of historical and international markets. He was a writer and advisor to the Urban Land Institute’s book, “Public Markets and Community Revitalization.”

It’s his mantra that individuals make a market, not architecture. Planning and designing, and then developing and operating markets take unique skills and talents, to be sure. But sellers and participants in that exchange make the market.

When O’Neil was in Spokane talking about the proposed site, 2nd Avenue, Pacific, and Browne, he laid out the major characteristics and some processes that can make a public market attractive and successful.

Public markets renew downtowns, jump-start surrounding neighborhoods, and attract development and infill. They bring diverse people together in social interaction. This public space creation is key to David’s thesis. “Farmer’s need the city, and the city needs farmers.”

That linking of urban and rural economies is key to national resiliency and community and regional solvency. Public markets with an emphasis on fresh produce and food that is freshly prepared promote public health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a multibillion dollar non-profit, invests in projects that solve the challenge of having healthy food be available to poor neighborhoods and promoted for unhealthy people.

O”Neil works for the Project for Public Spaces and ULI, and both organizations see the economic opportunities developing with a public market, especially for those business owners who have been shut out far too long to the retail market by large chains and corporations.

All those parts add up to the right vendors, the right location, the correct mix of activities and stuff to sell, a strong, clear and locally-generated mission, and public spaces for both low- income and high-income customers where moderately-priced food and goods are sold.

Traffic calming can tweak busy thoroughfares. Parking sort of takes care of itself, and the Spokane Public Market has plenty of parking. Pedestrian flow is important, too.

But too much of a good thing like over-designing the space can kill the heart and soul of a market. O’Neil is actually an expert on “detouristification,” the art of getting the tourists out of the public market because they can ruin a market with junk, trinkets and overpriced food.

While the U.S. only has fewer than 100 historic markets left or up and running through revitalization plans, there is no question that markets are great places for immigrants to get started. Enriching the social fabric, O’Neil says, is what markets can do; it’s a calming element to a city or neighborhood, providing a safe public gathering place for a diverse set of activities.

He’s at the cutting edge of researching social integration and the process of upward mobility through the economics of informal economies. Wholesaling to restaurants while processing and making foods on the spot, as well as selling raw ingredients, makes for a great new-old relationship that’s not just about hawking goods.

Can Spokane support or envision a market district where wholesaling is occurring as well as multiple sheds or spaces for things like farmer’s produce and products; clothing; flowers; cheese; wine; pasta; meats?

He showed us a photograph of three Latvians selling potatoes and other produce on a roadside stand — just a wormy wood plank and grimy canvas canopy. “”It’s not about architecture. You just don’t want to mess with what happens in markets. Those Latvians have been selling like that for a thousand years … still do today.”

While we won’t ever be Barcelona, where urban markets have been thriving for centuries … and received a boost in 1857 when the mayor declared no one would have to walk more than 10 minutes from home to reach a market, Spokane can achieve something if the right ingredients come together in Spokane, O’Neil stressed.

We need to get county commissioners, GSI members, city council members, state representatives, the governor’s office and others to put the value back in community development and neighborhood public places.

“China is putting in $1 billion a year to invest in public markets, what they call free markets,” O’Neil added. “We, on the other hand, have to beg the USDA to even see that an investment in public markets is economically sound.”

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