Downtown Market thriving, despite bumps
The venue just turned two and is working out the kinks, but there is reason for optimism.
Two years in, Slows Bar BQ opened in Downtown Market, giving the $32 million project its first restaurant tenant, and bringing it one step closer to fulfilling its promise to the community of offering 24 locally focused vendors and two restaurants within a thriving and vibrant facility.
Slows originally was slated to open in the spring but experienced delays, as has the Downtown Market’s second restaurant tenant, Social Kitchen & Bar, which originally planned to host its opening in August but is still going through the permit process with the city.
Despite the delays in getting its two anchor tenants in place, and with one remaining vendor space vacant, Mimi Fritz, president and CEO, said Downtown Market is thriving and in many ways exceeding expectations.
“Our original projections by year three for retail sales downstairs was expected to be $7.3 million; we just finished year two and are at $7.2 million,” she said. “So we are way ahead of projections on retail sales and that isn’t including the restaurants, which weren’t open yet.”
She also noted the organization’s revenues are up, but, she cautioned, so are its expenses.
“For example, the projections for the utilities annually were short by $200,000.”
She noted there are several reasons for the higher than projected expenses, including how the LEED-certified building is actually performing, additional staff and increased operating hours.
Fritz noted the number of jobs, which includes Downtown Market staff and each vendor’s staff, total more than 300 — higher than initial expectations.
“We anticipated to have 270 jobs at this point and have created 333,” she said.
Fritz said Downtown Market staff includes a combination of full- and part-time jobs, all of which earn higher than minimum wage. She said she’s hired significantly more staff than originally expected due to the popularity of the events spaces and other aspects of the market that weren’t expected to pick up as swiftly as they have.
“Our events department has grown from one to five (employees) because of popularity,” she said.
Fritz noted Downtown Market is currently hosting anywhere from 30 to 50 events per month in its various event spaces, which range from small conference rooms to the large north greenhouse space.
“The greenhouse wasn’t intended to have events, but the community was asking for that, so we’ve had to figure out how to use that space for growing, education and events,” Fritz said. “It is now a combined-use space.”
Another area where Downtown Market has had to adapt to meet demand is in its teaching kitchen.
“The original vision for the teaching kitchen was that different entities or organizations would come in and rent the teaching kitchen and use it to put on their own classes, but that never happened,” she said.
“People were interested in using the space, but they didn’t have the ability to actually rent it … so we decided, in place of that, to offer the opportunities ourselves.”
Fritz said the teaching kitchen was tied closely to the goals of Downtown Market being a space that helps foster a healthier community through food preparation classes, so once the Downtown Market realized that wasn’t going to happen, it was important to figure out how to still achieve that goal.
“We sat back and said we are going to do the programming in partnership with nonprofits,” she said. “It was something we didn’t expect, but we feel like we responded well to it.”
Fritz said the classes offered have been very popular and are another aspect of the market exceeding expectations.
“We’ve had over 5,000 community members participate in the classes over the last two years, and about 1,500 of those have attended through the scholarship program, which means they were free of charge,” she said.
Fritz said the scholarship program has been so popular the market has hired a development person tasked with securing additional funds to allow for more opportunities, particularly for individual scholarships.
Downtown Market’s incubator business program also is showing strong results. She said there are currently 26 active incubator tenants with others going through the licensing process.
“Traffic is the biggest issue we have in the kitchen right now,” Fritz said.
One big success story is Prospectors Cold Brew Coffee, which has been so successful Fritz said the market is realizing it has to make investments to support the growing business.
“We are finding we have to invest in different equipment for their growing needs so they can bottle faster,” she said.
Not everything has been as successful as anticipated, however, and Fritz points to the Outdoor Farmers Market as an area that needs improvement.
“We’ve been working with the farmers a lot trying to figure out ways of improving attendance,” she said.
“We have a new plan that we’d like to announce for next year; it’s a different take on the farmers market — a new concept.”
She said the market is focusing on selling more products from local farms and is doing that particularly through its produce vendor Relish, which Downtown Market operates.
“We decided it was important to get more Michigan product in the market,” she said. “There are some weeks where we focus on a single farm, and others where we sold four or five different farms’ products but all Michigan grown.”
She noted the market has embarked on a new strategic plan and continues to tweak the things that have not been working as well as anticipated.
“The staff is sitting down and putting the concepts together for our current mission in terms of what are we doing today, and our vision — what we see ourselves doing in five years,” she said.
“When they first put the original vision and mission together, they worked with about 150 to 180 members of the community. … The original vision is very close to what we are doing now, but now we are actually living this and we are seeing what the community wants and responding to the community’s needs as a whole.”
Fritz knows Downtown Market has received its share of criticism from people who feel it isn’t living up to expectations, but she stressed it’s still in its infancy and making adjustments to meet those expectations.
“It’s critical for people to understand we are two years old and have been focused on filling the building with tenants and building programs,” she said. “We are essentially operating five different things inside this business ourselves.”
She also challenges people to visit the market for themselves, saying the criticisms are often coming from people who say they don’t come to the market.
Downtown Market neighbors seem to agree the market is beneficial to the community and living up to the promises it made when it opened.
“I feel it’s had a positive impact on the neighborhood,” said Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Degage Ministries, who also sits on an advisory committee for Downtown Market.
“They are working with us on making classes available, and in the near future some of the women in our Open Door program are going to be participating in a cooking class there.
“They’ve made the Double Up Bucks available for our folks to use at the market, which has been wonderful. Also, they allow our folks to volunteer there when they have volunteer opportunities. It’s including people in the neighborhood at all socio-economic levels to be able to enjoy the market.”
Palmerlee said she’s also happy with how the market participates in the Heartside Gleaning Initiative, which redirects unused healthy foods to residents in need.
“They drop off food here that we are able to use,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way for the farmers to be able to bless those in the neighborhood who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take advantage of those things.”
Mike Jacobson, Baker Lofts and Klingman Lofts developer, said Downtown Market has definitely impacted the completed Baker Lofts and nearly completed Klingman Lofts projects, which have brought 170 affordable housing units to the neighborhood.
“Certainly, the market has created an awareness and a strong structure to the area,” he said.
“I think people who are moving to the area to live feel comfortable and feel like the stability of the area is enhanced by the existence of the market, aside from the fact that it provides a fun place for them to go.”