New urban farmers market should fill up

May 1, 2010
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One major reason the Grand Action Committee chose Ted Spitzer as the consultant for its proposed $27 million downtown market is that he has two decades of public market experience on his résumé. And much of his background is at the grassroots level, the same stage in which the committee finds itself.

Spitzer, now president of Market Ventures Inc. in Portland, Maine, served as the project director for the start-up of that city’s public market and then directed the operation from 1998 to 2001. After it opened, Spitzer started Farm to Market Inc., a nonprofit that operated businesses within the Portland market. Its goal was to make sure that farmers and food processors in the state had ongoing access to the market.

“We needed to have an interim strategy to keep local farm products in the market. Maine is a very small place — the whole state is only 1.2 million people and the city of Portland is only 63,000. So this was a pretty big project here in a pretty small place, and about a year and a half after the market opened, there was some vacancy,” said Spitzer via telephone from his office in Portland.

When vacancies occurred, Farm to Market created a business that would occupy stall space to fill a void in the market’s offerings until a vendor was found. “For example, we created a business called Market Roost Poultry. We had a poultry vendor when we opened, and he was a small farmer. His sales were actually three times higher than he anticipated. So he was doing well but he lived far away. He was supposed to move to Portland as part of the project and he chose not to. And as a result, he said his expenses were too high to operate the business,” said Spitzer.

“So he left the market, and then we had an empty spot for a poultry vendor. So Farm to Market stepped in and quickly created a business that operated the poultry stand in the market until we were able to find a vendor on a permanent basis. It was really a bridge strategy so our customers could have a full range of products and we could have a place to sell Maine’s food products.”

But Spitzer said he didn’t think there would be a need for a similar business here. He said the proposed farmers market has been scaled to the right size, about 40 stalls, and consumers’ desire for locally grown products has increased greatly since the Portland Public Market opened for business.

He said the Fulton Street Farmers Market, at Fulton and Fuller Avenue on the city’s near northeast side, serves as living proof of an increased demand here as it has a waiting list of vendors wanting space. He expects that the downtown market will draw a similar interest from farmers and growers. “You can make the same argument as to why is there more than one supermarket in Grand Rapids,” he said.

Christine Helms-Maletic, who is leading an effort to turn the Fulton market into a year-round operation, thought there could be enough business for both markets. “I think they’ve done their homework,” she said of Grand Action. “I think it’s going to take work to ensure that both markets are successful.”

“They’ve been strong supporters of our market,” said David Frey, a co-chairman of Grand Action.

Spitzer unveiled a data projection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Grand Action event in late March that added to the optimism for the new market’s success. He said there would be 300 more farms operating in an 11-county region surrounding the city by 2017, according to figures from the USDA census, and many of those new farms would be small. The USDA defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were, or normally would be, produced and sold” during a year. Spitzer projected the sales potential for fresh foods at the market at more than $20 million per year.

Seasonal farmers at the urban market would pay rent of $22 a day for a stall, while permanent vendors would pay 5.4 percent of their sales. “So we are very consciously creating a model in Grand Rapids that does not rely on as many permanent vendors (as in Portland) and has a different mix of uses. So we’re building in a farmers market,” he said as part of the development that also includes retail, housing, meeting space and other uses.

Spitzer said another difference between the public markets in Portland and Grand Rapids — and the reason this city might not need a Farm to Market type of business — is that in Portland the market’s developer came up with the use after he had purchased the property. Here, Spitzer said the idea for a market came first and then Grand Action found a site. The committee settled on 3.5 acres at Ionia Avenue and Wealthy Street owned by the Downtown Development Authority.

“It’s so far superior because of its on-site parking, its highway visibility, and its ability to phase and expand,” said Spitzer.

At the project’s unveiling, Spitzer said local supermarkets would be key competitors for the market. But as far as the downtown market negatively affecting business at established supermarkets, Spitzer said that wasn’t the case in Portland.

“The scale of the project — they had only 21 small businesses — is not really a threat to any strong supermarket. They do more sales in a month than we would do in a year. But they redesigned the supermarket a half-mile away and made it look like the public market,” he said.

“Then, two years later, Whole Foods opened within a half-mile. Then we heard about two weeks ago that we are getting our first Trader Joe’s. Remember, we’re a city of 63,000 people. So I think they saw the amount of interest and support for the public market.”

Spitzer said the challenge for an urban market would be to stay competitive while facing strong and more familiar names like Meijer and Spartan Foods. “That’s why we have put such a focus in Grand Rapids on having the food production happen in the market, and also having a large farmers market adjacent to it. Those are two fundamentally different things than what supermarkets do,” he said.

“The fact is, there is much growth potential for the kind of fresh, healthy food that we’re talking about being sold in the market. So while supermarkets and public markets do compete, the pie has a great opportunity to grow and everyone can benefit from it.”

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