Markets as Centers of Community Activity
posted by Darrin Wasniewski
Of the Four Points™ of the Main Street America™ approach, promotion is usually the one that receives the most attention, not only in Wisconsin but nationally. Many equate promotion to special events, but it is much more. The National Main Street Center defines promotion as “…positioning the district as the center of the community and the hub of economic activity, while creating a positive image that showcases a community’s unique characteristics.” There is no denying that seasonal markets—whether narrowly defined farmer’s markets or more broadly focused public markets—have exploded in popularity in recent years.
Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an internationally recognized leader in public markets, has long promoted the idea of markets as centers of community activity. Steve Davies, PPS’s co-founder and executive vice president, explains further: “Great markets are created through the clustering of activity. They require the intentional aggregation of local food production, but also of other services and functions. The food is the central reason for why people gather, and that gathering creates a hub for community life.”
With support from the Ford Foundation, PPS researched the impacts markets have on their communities. The top six types of impact are: linking urban and rural economies, promoting public health, renewing downtowns and neighborhoods, creating active public space, bringing together diverse people and providing economic activity. They are further defined on PPS’s website.
We are lucky enough in Wisconsin to have great examples of markets operated by local Main Street America programs. Read on to learn more about a few of them.
The Downtown Beloit Farmers’ Market was established in 1965 and has been moved around throughout the downtown several times before finding its permanent location. According to Downtown Beloit Association (DBA) Executive Director Shauna El-Amin, the market hosts 103 permanent vendors (of which 59 percent are farm vendors) each Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., May through October. El Amin estimates that upwards of 5,500 people visit the market on any given Saturday, and this number has been steadily increasing in the last several years.
DBA views the Downtown Beloit Farmers’ Market as both a special event and an image-building event that adds to the image and quality of life in Beloit. El Amin considers setup her biggest challenge: “It takes a lot to set up each week and to educate new vendors on the layout.” For 2016, DBA has added a Family Fun Zone that includes henna tattoos, balloon animals, face painting and caricature artistry in one area to help families ensure their children will have an enjoyable time.
As for trends witnessed, Shauna relates that they, “…have seen an increase in attendance as well as an increase in the number of organic and naturally grown vendors.”
Fond du Lac
Like Beloit’s, Fond du Lac’s market began in the mid-1960’s, but is now currently operated by the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, a designated Wisconsin Main Street program, Saturdays from May through October. They consider themselves a farmers’ market, but do provide some other spaces for downtown businesses that wish to get outside of their storefront. The market averaged 42 weekly vendors in 2015, with a high of 57 vendors in mid-August.
In 2015, the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, along with Beloit, Monroe and Viroqua, participated in the Farmers Market Economic Impact Study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Study results showed there were an average of 2,400 weekly visitors in Fond du Lac, with 79 percent of visitors coming from Fond du Lac or immediately adjacent communities. The average visitor spent $16.54 at the market. Of note, for those using electronic payments, the average credit/debit card transaction was $26, and the average EBT transaction was just over $19.
The Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership notes that some of their biggest challenges in operating the market include:
- Costs (administrative, operational and marketing) and reliance on external funding or vendor price increases to cover any cost increases.
- Personality conflicts—for example, vendor vs. vendor, vendor vs. local business, or business inside the market area vs. business outside the market area.
The organization has also noted a few trends at the Downtown Fond du Lac Farmers Market: an increase in usage of debit/credit/EBT cards; while rainy weather may bring smaller crowds, income remains consistent; the market has become a destination for family-friendly weekend fun; and musicians who come on a regular basis have booked gigs outside of the market.
On Broadway (Green Bay)
On Broadway, Inc. began the Farmers’ Market on Broadway in 2004. The organization believes a benefit of the market is the awareness that it brings to the district. Ahnna Dexter, program manager for On Broadway, Inc., explains, “People who may not have come down to Broadway end up coming for the Farmers’ Market and see storefronts or restaurants that they may never have heard of before.”
The seasonal market is held on Wednesday from 3 to 8 p.m. beginning in June. Each week is an event with 150 vendors, beer stations, live music and a new-for-2016 beer garden where people can sit down, socialize and enjoy the music. According to Dexter, “People who are looking for produce come earlier, and those who would rather shop a bit and socialize come later and stay longer.”
She concludes, “It’s a different social experience that doesn’t happen anywhere else in Green Bay. We bring different experiences to the market each week to keep people interested.”
The Whitewater City Market is just entering its second season. Begun in July 2015, the market opens on Tuesdays from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., May through October. In its first year, the market capped weekly vendors at 45, but it has been able to add 30 additional vendor spaces for this season. Downtown Whitewater, Inc. reported that results were immediate and dramatic in its first season: vendor capacity grew to the maximum by week 5, and by week 6, single-day attendance exceeded 1,000 shoppers.
Aside from the economic benefit to local businesses that stayed open for the market and the awareness benefit of drawing members of the UW-Whitewater community into the downtown area, the Whitewater City Market also served as a “proof of concept” opportunity to showcase that beer could be combined with public events in city parks without cyclone fencing, resulting in the amendment of city festival guidelines.
When asked about challenges of the market, Downtown Whitewater, Inc. Executive Director Courtney Nelson adds: “Communication. Maintaining positive communication with vendors, shoppers, volunteers and local businesses takes a lot of time and one-on-one conversations.”
Nelson concludes, “The Whitewater City market truly builds community. Getting 1,500 people out on a Tuesday night, enjoying the outdoors and talking to each other is a great step forward for positive community engagement.”