Investing in Excellence: Supporting and Sustaining Markets

Katherine Peinhardt
Dec 9, 2022
May 1, 2024

Editor’s note: Our next International Public Markets Conference is taking place in Toronto, Canada on June 8-10, 2023.

EXCELLENCE: A Market City invests regularly in its market facilities and in the management skills of market operators. 

7 Principles for Becoming a Market City

What is the secret to public markets that evolve over time to meet the needs of their vendors and customers and become beloved community gathering places? 

There is no surefire strategy or shortcut to building a successful market. But, there are proven ways to contribute to markets’ excellence, nearly all of which start with the decision to invest in their development.

Investing in a market can look a number of different ways. On a physical level, this can mean preserving or upgrading infrastructure and keeping up with maintenance. In terms of capacity-building, a Market City can provide promotional support, help markets with hiring and maintaining staff, or use policy to provide training opportunities and connect markets with the resources they need. The approach will be different in every case, but what these types of support have in common is their contribution to the sustained success of a market. 

While these investments can range in scale, they become most effective when they are magnified to the systems level. This way, a city can view markets in a holistic way and help them meet everyday challenges with the right combination of resources and supporting policies. 

Collaboration, Renovation and Promotion in Barcelona 

The famed markets of Barcelona, Spain, showcase the benefits of investing in the physical infrastructure of a market through renovations and updates. In fact, the City of Barcelona has made this a central point in the way they manage their vast network of markets. To that end, the City of Barcelona looks to its Municipal Market Institute (Institut Municipal de Mercats de Barcelona or IMMB) to administer and modernize its markets, supporting it as an autonomous institute through the City Council. According to IMMB’s Director of Innovation, Communication and Strategy Òscar Martin Perez, this is a part of Barcelona’s decision “to preserve the markets as an important piece of the city... not only in the city in general, but in every neighborhood as places of economic and social rehabilitation.” In the period between 2020 and 2023 alone, the City will have invested more than 98 million Euros in municipal markets.

This year has been especially busy for IMMB’s work on Barcelona’s markets. Renovations to Mercat de Sant Andreu finished up this past September, with three other markets’ modernization efforts still underway (Mercat de Montserrat, Mercat d’Horta, and Mercat Abaceria). In Mercat de Sant Andreu, expanded market spaces, meeting rooms, and energy-efficient retrofitting have expanded the scope of what the market can achieve for vendors and customers alike, with designs that suit the character of the surrounding square. 

A typical scene at the Mercat de Sant Andreu. Credit: Mercats de Barcelona

What is special about Barcelona’s renovations is that they are undertaken as a cooperative effort: IMMB puts a significant amount of time into outreach before making any changes. “We don’t start any renovation without the association of vendors of the market,” says Martin Perez. “When we have the agreement of the vendors, we put out a call for architects to design the new market.” Many of these projects are also jointly financed: The majority of the investment is generally covered by the municipality as the owner of the market buildings, but this funding comes alongside a proportional contribution by the vendors (usually approximately 20%), as well as other businesses or restaurants that occupy market spaces. 

A vendor selling fresh eggs at the Mercat de l’Abaceria. Credit: Mercats de Barcelona

After getting the go-ahead from vendors, IMMB consults the market’s neighbors about renovation plans. In some cases, this completely changes the trajectory of the renovation effort. In the case of Mercat de l’Abaceria, Martin Perez noted that the market is in a district with narrow streets without green areas or parks. In the project, as a result of speaking with neighbors over the course of a year, they dedicated 20% of the renovated market area to green public space for the local community.

This consensus-building approach with vendors and other residents is key to the continued success of Barcelona’s markets. “It’s not often easy,” says Martin Perez. “I remember in one market, we stayed in discussion for 10 years. But we know that in our experience, if we don’t have a clear majority, if we don’t have consensus, it’s very difficult to obtain a successful project.” This dual layer of outreach ensures that the physical changes that the markets undergo respond well to the evolution and function of the markets over time. 

Though much of Barcelona’s most visible market success comes from its dedication to the upkeep and modernization of market spaces, local experts see the value in lending markets support in promoting their vendors and reaching a wider customer base.

The IMMB’s support goes far beyond the physical buildings to help with communications, marketing, and financial support for programs. For example, IMMB worked with vendor associations to coordinate a project called GreenCommerce which promoted local, sustainable products from farmers connected with the markets. More recently, IMMB put on a “Market of Markets” (Mercat de Mercats) to help vendors to display their products as part of a large street fair. 

This powerful combination of attention to market spaces and the needs of vendors is what helps Barcelona embody the excellence principle of a Market City. 

Human Capital and Care in Webb City

The success of a market depends upon the people who keep it running. But funding for paid market staff is not always a given, leaving many markets unable to fill crucial positions, like that of market manager. In fact, just over one-third of U.S. farmers markets are managed by unpaid volunteers. 

For many years, Webb City Farmers Market in Missouri followed this model, with its founder heading operations on a volunteer basis. But upon her retirement, she recognized the need to train a market manager and approached the municipality for financial support. According to current Market Manager Rachael Lynch, the City came forward with a little over $20,000 a year to help train a new manager. While this was a useful kick-start, it was clear that more support would be needed in the long run, which led the market to look for additional funds.

According to Lynch, one of the main challenges is the difficulty in fundraising to cover the salaries of market managers. Sometimes, this means that markets with a nonprofit model are forced to choose between funding their programming and retaining paid staff members. 

Volunteers building Webb City Farmers Market’s on-site educational garden. Credit: Rachael Lynch

In order to support paid employees, Webb Market has now located sponsors and partnerships to provide sustained funds to its programs, keeping outreach and events accessible without sacrificing management capacity. Private sponsors have been brought on to support many of their current activities, including the Music at the Market program, “Cooking for a Cause” fundraisers for local charities, and a program that distributes $10 weekly supplements to be used alongside WIC coupons for fresh products at the market. By finding support for these initiatives, Webb City Farmers Market now sees a future in which they are able to expand their staff. 

In order to diversify local crops and cultivate a new wave of growers and vendors, Webb City Farmers Market has also made an array of training programs available to the public. Most of the programs are funded by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and include an educational garden at the market, the production of training videos with Missouri University Extension Services, and even a Fruit Education Site, which provides opportunities for aspiring growers while expanding what is on offer for customers.

Participants at the Fruit Education Site, linked to Webb City Farmers Market. Credit: Rachael Lynch

Keeping Things Running

Less glamorous, but equally important is support in facilities upkeep and repairs: Rachael Lynch noted that for public markets that operate on City property, valuing the space and “keeping up with that property” is a key way for municipalities to provide support. Taking the time to carry out building inspections and keep things up to code may seem obvious, but can make a significant difference in how well a market operates on a day-to-day basis.

These maintenance needs may change over time. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Webb City Farmers Market was given a grant by the Department of Agriculture to sustain the market through the pandemic. This money covered seemingly small-scale supplies that are likely what made the difference in the market’s survival: masks and hand sanitizer, awnings to make the market more outdoor-friendly, hand-washing stations, and a laptop to coordinate contactless pickup. Lynch notes, “If we hadn’t found those funds, we would’ve found it very difficult to buy the safety items that our community needed to stay open.”

Webb City Farmers Market highlights the ingredients any market needs to thrive, including sustained funding for market management, the training of new growers, as well as everyday maintenance.

Funding for Capacity Building with the Farmers Market Coalition

Taking time to address the needs of market managers and operators is another key way to ensure that a market continues to grow. Since 2018, Dar Wolnik, Program Director at Farmers Market Coalition in the US has been working on the Farmers Market Support program, a framework around “how we build market operators’ capacity through programs, funding contracts, and grants.” Working closely with these operators, the Farmers Market Coalition frequently checks in to ask about needs in terms of networks, resources, and analysis. 

The first step to capacity building, according to Wolnik, is to make the market operator role well-known, and ensure that it is “resourced through policy and funding.” Support can be tailored at the city level by tapping into training initiatives that, in many cases (at least in the US), grassroots organizations have already begun. One of the best places to start is with groups like state-level farmers market associations, which are some of the biggest supporters of operators through activities like manager certification programs. “In the US there are about 28-30 independently run farmers market associations at the state level and another 30-50 network partners that fund programs,” says Wolnik. “Through those entities, and ones like the Farmers Market Coalition, cities can find the appropriately scaled intervention that works for that place.” For example, states like Michigan, Virginia, and Washington state have well-established certificate programs and toolkits geared toward market managers.

SNAP Table distributing coupons at Kamm’s Corners Farmers Market in Ohio. Credit: Dar Wolnik

Crucial to keep in mind, however, is that markets operate in a broad range of ways, serving different community missions. “For some it’s economic, some it’s ecological stewardship,” says Wolnik. “It really is important to understand what assets and challenges they have.” Whether markets are volunteer-driven or managed by paid staff, well-informed policymakers can work to meaningfully include markets in wider initiatives, like factoring markets’ ability to recover quickly into climate resilience planning. Keeping markets involved in policy discussions is the foundation of a comprehensive Market Cities approach, whether that involvement determines how markets are supported by local government or how markets can further benefit the community.

Compost at Kamm's Corners. Photo Credit: Dar Wolnik

At the same time, a wealth of resources for markets already exists. Here, cities can help markets to connect with these resources and select what works best for their unique context. For example, Farmers Market Coalition has a Legal Toolkit, an Anti-Racist Farmers Market Toolkit, and Covid-19 guidelines tailored to market operators. These resources are often the result of self-organized working groups within the food and farming community, and seem to “bubble up from grassroots communities” to meet current challenges. 

Beyond using resources that already exist, cities can give operators the flexibility to develop their own processes. For example, in New Orleans’ Crescent City Farmers Market, founders created a food handling guide where none had existed at the local level before. Wolnik recalls that the guide was adapted from other local festivals, and further developed with the guidance of scientists—quickly approved by the City and going on to become the keystone document for the way the market was run. Since its approval in the 1990s, the guideline document “has been copied around the country hundreds of times.” The process as a whole built trust with the City and helped smooth the path to creating the open air markets that New Orleans has to this day. Another approach Wolnik recommends is the creation of an off-season market fellowship, inviting market operators to attend city meetings, and meet with planners, as well as economic development staff so they can better communicate.

To know about opportunities is one thing, but being able to take them is another. Cities can best support market staff by simultaneously providing a supportive policy landscape and giving market operators what they need in order to take advantage of useful resources.

Why Investing in Excellence Matters

Cities have the power to help their market systems thrive—and it doesn’t have to be costly—by supporting the renovation and maintenance of facilities, training market managers, and developing new resources and programs. As these stories demonstrate, investing in these many facets of excellence pays dividends in both the evolution of individual markets and in their ability to meet the diverse goals of the communities they serve.

With the right support—even small levels of investment can have a large impact—markets have the power to become hubs of our economic, social, and environmental wellbeing.

Katherine Peinhardt has a background in climate change, and writes about the intersection of resilience and placemaking. She currently works at the ICLEI European Secretariat, and is a former German Chancellor Scholar.

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