By Benjamin Fried
Public markets, unlike more conventional economic development projects, must not only succeed as businesses but also meet community goals. Indeed, a market is much more likely to thrive economically if it has deep roots in the surrounding community. Whereas a big box retail development relies on cheap prices (and low-wage labor) to draw customers, a market must offer a public space experience and mix of products tailored to the people it serves in order to be economically competitive. Just as crucial, the economic opportunities it creates are more lasting and meaningful.
Public markets can succeed as self-sustaining incubators for new businesses in low- and moderate-income communities.
Part of what makes markets so important as an economic development tool is the low cost of entry for new entrepreneurs with little capital. A PPS survey of 157 vendors from eight markets reveals that an overwhelming majority–83 percent–were able to self-finance their businesses. The findings confirm the importance of work that PPS’s public markets grantees–with support from the Ford Foundation–are taking on. These organizations show how public markets can succeed as self-sustaining incubators for new businesses in low- and moderate-income communities–and provide vital public gathering spaces to boot.
Minneapolis: A Global Marketplace Rooted in the Local Neighborhood
To see how powerful the idea of public markets has become in economic development circles, look to Minneapolis, where the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) is planning a public market to anchor the ground floor of a large redevelopment in the city’s biggest immigrant neighborhood. When plans were taking shape to redevelop a 1.2 million square foot former Sears building on Lake Street, the city of Minneapolis was persuaded to forgo a chain grocery store as the anchor tenant, and instead go with a new “global marketplace” filled with local merchants.
The idea for the Midtown Global Market (MGM), developed by NDC, the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), the African Development Center (ADC), and the Powderhorn Philips Cultural Wellness Center, is to provide 60,000 plus square-feet for 62 permanent ethnic food, crafts and related small businesses in stalls and shops situated around a sky-lit atrium. An outdoor farmers market will be an integral part of the experience, as will live music, cooking demonstrations, and other activities. The development team has adopted the slogan “Many tastes, One place” to reflect the incredible confluence of cultures in South Minneapolis that will all have a stake in the market. (NDC Director Mihailo Temali calls the neighborhood “The Brooklyn of the Midwest.”)
Prior to launching the Midtown Global Market, NDC and LEDC had nurtured Minneapolis’s Mercado Central, providing business training to its vendors, who are mostly Latino immigrants. That market has become a neighborhood institution, and MGM vendors will utilize the same business training and micro-loan programs that were instrumental to the success of Mercado Central. In fact, many MGM vendors will have “graduated” from Mercado Central and other training programs and start-up locations. This is a business ladder model at work: Vendors progress to larger spaces, broader customer bases, and stronger management practices as they become more experienced. About half the vendors at MGM will be such “second level entrepreneurs,” who have three to five years of experience in business.
“MGM is built from the ground up by the community,” says Temali. “It will be not just a venture for well-established ethnic businesses, but a viable start-up and expansion location for low-income entrepreneurs from South Minneapolis.”
New York: Reviving a Classic Marqueta
Vendors have occupied space under the Metro North Viaduct in East Harlem since the turn of the 20th Century. In 1935, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia built walls around them and created a public market that became known as La Marqueta del Barrio. In its heyday, the market was a bustling center of neighborhood commerce and culture, but over the decades it dwindled down, from 200 vendors to less than half a dozen.
Today, a revival is on the horizon as the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation (EHBCC) undertakes a complete restoration of La Marqueta, including the recruitment of new vendors and the construction of an expanded 85,000 square foot market. In keeping with East Harlem’s heritage as a Mecca for Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Latin American art and music, EHBCC is partnering with local arts and culture groups to make sure La Marqueta is a true community destination.
“The key to our success is to instill these new businesses with staying power — our vision is to make the market self-sufficient.”
“The community views La Marqueta as a symbol of opportunity,” notes EHBCC Executive Director Elizabeth Colón. “It was there that thousands of Puerto Rican migrants gathered and gave it its name, after settling in El Barrio, the city and the region.”
The restoration is a truly local endeavor. Vendors are being recruited and trained by EHBCC from around the neighborhood. The market will be free of chain stores and fast food franchises. The emphasis on local ownership is especially important in light of the fact that East Harlem is home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. “La Marqueta will provide those who want to take the entrepreneurial challenge–some already on the streets as vendors–the chance to start and build their businesses,” Colón says.
EHBCC’s entrepreneurial training programs, provided in both English and Spanish, give entrepreneurs the skills to operate businesses at La Marqueta and become successful. According to Colón, “The key to our success is to instill these new businesses with staying power — our vision is to make the market self-sufficient. Government is helping us put it together, but our long-term success will hinge on the growth and strength of the entrepreneurs.”
Athens, Ohio: Local Foods, Crafts Raise Economic Hopes
The Appalachian region spills over into Ohio, covering 29 rural counties along the Ohio River in the southeast part of the state. In some towns, unemployment reaches double digits and up to a third of households live in poverty. It’s here that the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, or ACEnet, runs several incubator programs to help local residents find footing as successful business owners. Public markets play a big role in ACEnet’s work, providing retail outlets for their trainees, and they are now looking to join multiple market projects together in a permanent home.
One of the markets on the move is the hugely successful Athens Farmers Market, where thousands of customers come from throughout the region to look over fresh produce and prepared foods on sale from more than a hundred vendors. About a quarter of the vendors there have passed through ACEnet’s business and entrepreneurship training program and made use of its shared-use commercial kitchen. This remarkable facility enables enterprising chefs and area farmers to turn their home-cooking specialties into profitable, bulk-produced prepared foods, such as sauces, baked goods, and dried meats–at very low cost.
Start-up food businesses often use the Athens Farmers Market as the first outlet for their product. “On Saturday mornings they might be selling their pesto direct to customers at the market, then the rest of the time they’re selling cases to all the grocery stores,” says ACEnet’s Leslie Schaller. “Then they might graduate to regional markets and sell in Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Charleston.”
Just within the last year, ACEnet has also started working with a burgeoning community of artisans and craftspeople in the town of Nelsonville, helping them do market research and develop business plans. About 40 such artisans now sell at a Sunday arts market in downtown Athens, and they will join vendors from the farmers market at a new site that ACEnet is in the process of securing. This combination of local food vendors and artisans will reflect Southeastern Ohio’s unique local culture and help create a vibrant and self-sustaining economy.