A great public market doesn’t usually just happen–there are a lot of smart, dedicated people behind the scenes who work to make sure that markets are set up to serve their surrounding area. Like any public space, markets work best when they reflect the people who live nearby. They are places for buying and selling food, yes, but they’re also places for meeting and learning about neighbors, accessing services, and becoming part of the daily life of a community.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Larry Lund, a long-time Placemaker and head of the Chicago-based Real Estate Planning Group (REPG). Larry is an expert on markets, particularly in regard to how they scale up and down to fit the communities in which they are based. If you’d like to meet Larry and learn more about this subject, there is still time to register for the 8th International Public Markets Conference, which will take place in Cleveland, Ohio, just two weeks from now, from September 21-23rd, 2012.
How did your interest in markets begin? How does it relate to what you do now, with real estate planning?
I got involved with markets back in the mid 1980s, when Fred Kent pulled together a group to discuss how we could use Public Markets to rejuvenate town centers. Our emphasis was on looking at markets as a model for rebuilding activity in the downtown area. Since then, the Public Market movement has evolved from a focus on Placemaking to include a better delivery system for fresh food Now, PPS is talking about how markets can be more than just a center for food—they can deliver other goods and services to communities, as well.
I started the Real Estate Planning Group in 1990, so I had already been working on markets before that, but most of my market projects have been with PPS. I have now worked on more than 50 Public Markets throughout the country. My primary role working with PPS is to do the economic and market analysis. Even though markets have been around for hundreds of years, the nature has changed and we have had to find new methods to estimate potential using sophisticated tools like gravity models and survey techniques to estimate market shares. It’s very important to try to get the scale right for the market setting and to have some rational basis for estimating sales potential and tenant mix. There is lots of talk about sustainability from an environmental standpoint, but we also try to bring the concept of sustainability from an economic standpoint: is there enough money here so that vendors can be successful and the market can operate in a sustainable fashion. Markets need to meet customer expectations, vendor needs, and operate in a sustainable fashion for whatever entity develops the market.
How important are the characteristics of the surrounding place? Can markets drive development, or are there components that need to be in place already?
There are some characteristics that you absolutely need for a market to work well, like visibility and accessibility. Historically, markets were always in or near the center of trade routes, and there’s an intrinsic need for that even today. If there’s a strong sense of place already, before a market locates somewhere, that obviously helps. However, in some cases, putting in a market can help develop a place if the market is large enough and visible enough. We’ve seen, in the US, how a market hall strengthens the center of towns and can complement other uses such as retail, office, and residential.
What’s always a challenge is trying to get the scale right, and that’s something I’m going to be talking a lot about at the Markets Conference in Cleveland later this month. There’s an equation here in terms of sustainability, making sure there are enough people and enough vendors to support your market. Markets have a great appeal in just a visceral sense, but not all of them turn out to be successful. You still need a good location for them, and you need enough people who have access to the area. The larger the market, generally speaking, the larger the draw. There has to be a relationship with the population around the market; it’s important to understand who your customers are: their interest in fresh foods, their sensitivity to prices, and what the competition looks like.
What a lot of people don’t recognize is that there’s also a big difference between farmers’ markets and year-round public markets. The economics around both of them are radically different. It’s important to understand that, if you have a successful farmers’ market, changing that to what I call a public market building is a big leap for everyone, and a lot of analysis has to be done before making that decision because the nature of the market changes.
One of the attractions of farmers’ markets, besides outstanding food products, is the ephemeral nature of it. These markets are one or two days a week, and they’re seasonal; the ‘event quality’ is a very strong attraction for people. That changes when you start institutionalizing it into a market building, where the economics require you to start running the market six or seven days a week. For farmers to turn themselves into permanent vendors changes their business model, too. I often say that my role is to make sure that the visioning process doesn’t turn into a hallucination, and that there’s economic support in changing the business structure.
Can you explain more about scaling markets to their context? How are markets different in big cities versus more rural communities? How are they similar?
Most of my work is related to repositioning existing enclosed markets and responding to the desire of successful farmers’ market wanting to become a year-round event. In either case it is usually more challenging in rural areas than it is in urbanized areas, and I have to say it’s even a challenge in urbanized areas in being able to find vendors today who can handle that year-round schedule. It’s difficult to find butchers and fishmongers, for instance. It’s even especially difficult to find produce vendors—the main driver in most markets—who can operate full-time. When you want to run something on an annualized basis the seasonality draw begins to disappear.
That’s not to say markets cannot run year-round and sell in the winter time, but it’s difficult if you don’t have a wide variety of food. Today there’s a whole issue of commitment to the local food movement and what that means for the customer. That’s something that has to be considered if you’re aiming to create a local-food market versus allowing food to be imported to your area and offering a full scope of services. I always caution that market managers have to understand their goal in building a public market building. I think a lot of people don’t give that enough consideration. Different kinds of markets meet different objectives.
What I’m seeing now is a series of market buildings people are developing that only have maybe three or four tenants. They’re not farmers, but you’ll find a bakery and a charcuterie and a coffee place, and they develop into third places. People are looking at these places as community-builders. You can see this happening in Seattle, for example, outside of the Pike Place Market. There are a series of buildings that have sprung up around the market that are more about creating an enjoyable place for public gathering than delivery of fresh local food—they’re great third places built around the food movement.
These storefront buildings have developed into a food cluster that offers something for each part of the day. In the morning, that the bakery serves coffee; the charcuterie starts serving sandwiches at lunch; in the evening, you may have a wine bar that’s part of this cluster. There are things to activate the space throughout the day, which makes it a nice neighborhood attraction for people to come to.
For our last question, how do you expect the upcoming markets conference in Cleveland to shed light on these issues?
In one of the sessions, we’re going to be talking about the scalability of markets extensively and getting people to focus on what the sponsor’s objectives are. We’ll show examples of different kinds of markets & what people have been doing around the country to meet various needs and community goals. We’ll help people identify and think through that process to make sure they have a project that’s successful.
Markets have to adjust themselves as they see who their customers are, and this is part of the discussion we’ll be having: how markets evolve even after they open. An exciting thing about markets is that they allow for change, and they adjust to their customers. The whole thing is about getting the scale and mission right. It’s always easier if you can do that up front, but frankly all retail has to go through that transition and evolution of understanding their customers and vice versa. The needs and demands of consumers are always changing. Our goal is to help people meet their objectives and be economically sustainable in delivering all the good things that markets can deliver to their communities.
Celebrating 25 years since its first gathering, the 8th International Public Markets Conference will set a new direction for the vital role markets play in transforming local economies and communities. Click here to register today!