Debates Around Portland Oregon's Public Market Helpful to Spokane's Public Market Effort

image from www.ams.usda.gov Neighborhood farmers' markets are popping up across America. According to the USDA, there has been a 250% growth in the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. (1,755 in 1994 to a total of 6,132 in 2010). The growing popularity of farmers' markets is leading many cities to try and reestablish permanent public markets like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. After a ten year effort, locavore-passionate Portland is close to opening one of the most high profile market initiatives in the country. Their proposed James Beard Public Market is stirring up a debate that is helpful for other cities like Spokane as we look to the opening of our own public market on June 2. 

The Oregonian reported this week that while most growers and advocates for local food support the market, there are some reservations and questions.

So what do local farmers and their backers at these markets have to say about a permanent public market? Is it a competitor, business booster, or something in between? That depends on whom you ask, but most seem to support the idea — with caveats.

The two main caveats mentioned in the Oregonian article have to do with the feasability of the business model and the what I'll call the "Pike-Place-Market-Envy Problem."

First, the business model:

Farmers market manager Eamon Molloy wonders whether a permanent market that’s costly to build will ultimately serve local farmers and food artisans’ needs. “I’m concerned that we’re going to build a shrine to food rather than a place where customers can go to buy it,” says Molloy, who runs the Hillsdale and Lloyd farmers markets. “People don’t make a ton of money at this. Food is by nature a low-margin business.

Second the Pike-Place problem:

Trevor Baird of Baird Family Orchards agrees, saying the regulars who buy his Dayton-grown peaches week in and week out will always be there. A public market along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle offers something altogether different. “I love Pike Place (Market) for the spectacle of it,” says Baird. “I’m not going to get strawberries there. The vendors there are wholesalers — they’ve got some nice produce, but they’re not farmers and they don’t pretend to be.” 

Not all the vendors at Pike Place are "high stallers" as farmers' market purists call them, but in order to fill the shelves of a year-round market with the tourist cache' of Pike Place, many of the fruits and vegetables on offer at the Seattle market are imports from far-off places. Florida oranges and bananas from South America mingle with Washington grown items. 

This is a very different approach from a neighborhood farmers' market. According to the rules of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, markets like the one in Millwood that I help run cannot sell bananas and California strawberries. Everything must be from the region and while there are allowances for some wholesale selling, there are strict limits, and farmers impose a lot of pressure on market managers to keep wholesale product from competing with their direct-from-the-farm product. 

A permanent public market with high overhead costs will have a difficult time in Spokane if they limit the produce and fruit to only what the regional climate has to offer. Its offerings will likely mirror what Full-Circle farm is doing with their fruit and veggie boxes. A mix of unique local offerings and wholesale goods that are similar to what is available in a grocery store. While Pike Place Market can maintain its aura even as they sell wholesale stuff, it remains to be seen whether something like the Spokane Public Market or the Portland market, for that matter, can pull that off. Others have tried and are trying with mixed results.

The folks in Portland are hoping for a hybrid model.

According to the James Beard Public Market website, the goal is a market with the “vitality” ofPike Place or Granville Island Market, but with “the primary focus on connecting local growers and food producers to local customers.” 

Pike Place Market is a cultural and economic icon that is the envy of cities across America. Probably every city that looks to start a public market uses Pike Place as a reference point, but I cringe when I hear someone say that the new public market on Second and Browne will "one day rival the Pike Place Market." Spokane's psyche is scarred from years of finding itself on the short end of comparisons to Seattle, so in my opinion we are really setting ourselves up for problems when we build that into the vision for the new Market. 

This story reported by GOOD about the other Portland's foray into Pike Place Market envy should serve as a cautionary tale:

After a visit to the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, a financial adviser for philanthropist Betty Noyce (the late, ex-wife of the Intel microchip founder) suggested that she fund a new public market in Portland, Maine, in order to revitalize the downtown. Noyce went on to finance the $9.4 million Portland Public Market, which opened in 1999 with 23 food vendors. Over the next seven years, farmers lodged complaints about poor access, the market struggled with a high vendor turnover rate, and two high-end restaurants there failed. In 2006, the market closed, after Noyce's foundation reported annual losses of about $1 million.

Several vendors launched a subsequent campaign to "Save the Market" and a year later, a new, slightly renamed, Portland Public Market House-a smaller, unsubsidized building filled with four permanent vendors (three of whom own the building) and a community kitchen-opened on a square adjacent to the city's once-a-week outdoor farmers' market.

I am hoping for the success of the new market. It would be a great addition to the local food scene, and best of all it would be a boon to the local farmers I know and support. It won't be a Pike Place Market, but hopefully it will be a unique and wonderful expression of the Inland Northwest's farms and food. The site currently shows the market opening this Thursday, June 2.