Fall is upon us and for LOA that means the work on a second round of New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiatives is set to begin. In the past year, our work has brought us to smaller, more rural towns upstate and around the country and with that, came many visits to local farmers markets. Farmers markets, or “multi-stall markets at which farmer-producers sell agricultural products directly to the general public at a central/ fixed location” are not a new phenomenon. In fact, marketplaces have been a key economic, cultural, and social component of villages, towns, and cities for thousands of years. Today, smaller downtowns, are seeing a resurgence of farmers markets as economic revitalization tools, particularly in areas with existing agricultural assets. In this post, we discuss the potential benefits that can be reaped from a downtown farmers market and actions that can be taken to ensure the most effective implementation of one.

 

Farmers markets are community porches
Many of the farmers markets we have observed in our work, whether intended or not, have evolved into the “front porch” of the community and function as key gathering places. Residents and visitors from various walks of life convene at the market through a common interest for fresh, local produce resulting in unique social interactions.
Morganton Farmers Market at the retail core. Photo: LOA
In some cases, farmers markets have also been key in activating formerly underutilized spaces downtown and turning these into active public spaces. From old warehouses to underused parking lots and vacant land, farmers markets have the power to activate these spaces by introducing a new public use and attracting new users of the space.

 

In Morganton, NC, for example, hosts a mini farmers market every Wednesday in the warm months on a field that was simply sitting vacant by the retail core of the downtown. Meanwhile, in Springfield, OR, a year-round farmers market is hosted in a former church property that was purchased and refurbished with a 3,000 SF event space.
Farmers markets promote health and wellness
The seasonal freshness of fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets, the in-built nutritional value of goods sold, and the direct linkage made between food producers and consumers, makes the markets fitting platforms for health promotion and nutrition education.  In addition, consumers around the world are also gaining a new appreciation for and connection to their food producers, so farmers markets are the much-needed platforms to further grow support for local food systems.
In addition, farmers markets that offer SNAP programs also expand low-income households’ access to healthy foods, ensuring that all local residents are able to reap benefits from the healthy offerings at the markets and raising nutritional levels among low-income households. Additional free programming such as cooking and nutrition classes offered at farmers markets can often expand the accessibility of healthy local produce by educating those households that are unfamiliar with preparing fresh, wholesome meals.
Now, for the economic benefits.
 
Farmers markets are visitor attractions
Farmers markets are also great downtown anchors that attract hoards of residents and tourists for hours weekly. Naturally, this raises foot traffic that may otherwise be lacking in smaller downtowns. In Springfield, OR, for example, the famers market attracted an estimated 30,000 people and more than 40 regular vendors in its first year of opening alone.
In a smaller, rural downtown, this regular stream of pedestrian traffic to the farmers market translates to foot traffic into neighboring stores and restaurants, especially when the farmers markets are held on weekends and customers dwell times are more flexible.

 

 
Farmers markets add to downtown retail mix
With more traditional farmers markets that host fresh produce and specialty food vendors, these markets essentially act as the local grocery store. In more rural parts of the country where the grocery store is typically a big box Walmart or Wegmans or Food Lion that requires driving 15 minutes outside of downtown, the farmers market can be a solution to bridging a hyperlocal retail gap.  Its location, typically in a downtown parking lot, means that it is far more convenient for residents in the area to grab a carton of milk or spare eggs. Not to mention, the freshness of pastries and bread sold at the farmers market compared to the large grocery store.
As consumer preferences shift, even grocery stores are replacing their aisles with even more fresh, local produce and organic goods – goods that are already filling the wooden crates at farmers markets. In 2008, local food sales were estimated to be close to $5 billion and farmers markets are naturally aligned to leverage the growth in this demand (if it’s not already being met!).
Farmers markets function as business incubators and accelerators
From Farmers Market vendor to…..
Finally, and most importantly, farmers markets cut the middlemen who typically distribute farmers’ and artisans’ goods, therefore raising profit margins for the producers. The markets also act as business incubators by providing the opportunities for producers and makers to first test products directly with consumers and get real time feedback thru product samples – all at a much, much lower cost than either setting up a storefront or selling online. The Fresh Friday Farmers Market in Allentown, PA, for example, has provided increased business opportunities for local farms and food businesses proliferating in the LeHigh Valley.
…Storefront! This is Cedar Rapids Whiskey Sauce Co. in Ely
Upon finessing and growing the demand for their products and services, many farmers market vendors have then grown big enough to be able to set up brick-and-mortar stores downtown. For downtowns that lost retail tenants in the last economic downturn, this business incubation function of farmers markets may be ideal to helping fill those storefront spaces. For example, in Richmond, VA, a vacant storefront that was formerly occupied by a bakery was recently bought over by a pastry chef who sells pastries and baked goods at the local St Stephens Farmers Market. Although the owner will essentially be replacing goods that were already on offer by the previous tenant, the farmers market start has enabled her to refine her merchandise selection based on early consumer feedback.
Other examples of farmers market vendors that have moved on to brick-and-mortar include Blacksauce Kitchen that made its start at the JFX Farmers’ Market in Baltimore before recently opening a shop that serves customers one day a week. In Iowa, Cedar Rapids Whiskey Sauce Co last year opened a shop on Dows Street in small downtown Ely after making its start at local farmers’ markets and several HyVee grocery store locations.

 

How to ensure farmers markets really become downtown revitalization tools:
Unfortunately, not all farmers markets have been powerful downtown revitalization tools. There are a number of steps that need to be taken to ensuring that the benefits we discussed above can be achieved.
Site your farmers market in or near your retail core
Geneseo, NY Farmers Market off Main Street by local theater.
Firstly, the location of the farmers market is crucial to driving spillover foot traffic from the market to downtown storefronts. If the market isn’t located in the retail core of downtown, shoppers are unlikely to stop by adjacent storefronts after perusing the market. In Morganton, NC, for instance, before introducing a mini market on Wednesdays on an empty field at the retail core, hosted its weekly farmers market 0.5 mile away, far away enough (given the hotter climate and elevations) that customers passing through the farmers market would have to get in a car before being able to get to downtown. And we all know, once your customer gets in the car, they’re as good as lost. The farmers market wasn’t quite an anchor for downtown businesses until it was introduced right smack in the retail core.
Locating farmers markets in the retail core will be especially crucial for downtowns that have residential uses located at the retail core or within walking distance of downtown. Having direct and easy access to a large residential shopping demand is crucial to the success of vendors, and of course if vendors succeed, they are likely to return to sell goods, maintaining the critical mass of vendors needed to attract customers and ensuring overall sustainability of the farmers markets.
Provide supportive transportation infrastructure
City of Palo Alto installed bike racks on the
street used for weekly farmers market.
If your downtown is dense and walkable and the bulk of your customers are residents who already live in the vicinity, then supportive infrastructure to help customers get to the farmers market might include wide sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, wayfinding signage, bike lanes and bike parking facilities, and bus stops.
On the other hand, if your downtown is small and much more rural with most customers only able to arrive by car, then convenient and well-maintained parking lots should also be made available to support a “park once” downtown for customers and vendors to visit the farmers market and other businesses all at once without having to worry about moving their cars.
Complement the market with programming
Portland, OR Market Music event showcases local acts.
Educational community programs and local music acts are some activities that accompany farmers markets across the country and these are great ways to further engage local residents and visitors that pass through. The best way to find out what types of programs the local community needs is to simply carry out an intercept consumer survey.
At the same time, programs should also be organized to help vendors grow their business and following. The Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation in Springfield, OR, organizer of the downtown farmers market is an owner of properties downtown. Once vendors at the market reach a stage of expansion that requires a larger and more regular storefront, NEDCO is able to rent spaces it owns at lower rates to support these businesses.
 
Operate the market during accessible hours
Depending on the downtown and the number of major employers in the area, it may be effective to hold farmers markets on weekdays. In such cases, vendors may leverage the existing daytime worker market demand during lunchtime. On the other hand, if the weekday daytime population downtown doesn’t exist, then a weekend market would make more sense.

 

Actively brand and market
Strong local campaigns to bring awareness to and promote the farmers market are crucial to establishing a new downtown anchor. In Livingston County, NY, (where we’re about to embark on a Countywide Commercial District Assessment), a Find It In Livingston campaign encourages shoppers to seek local produce and goods by actively announcing where and when downtown farmers markets happen on the county economic development website. The Charles City Downtown Farmers Market similarly participates in the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ campaign, a comprehensive marketing program for farmers selling directly to consumers, restaurants, grocery stores and other institutions.

 

 
Ensure strong administrative capacity
As with all downtown economic revitalization initiatives, administrative capacity and resources are required to sustain farmers markets. In addition to support from the City, buy-in from local residents is essential to carrying out a successful market. While the City is able to support the market in procuring a vacant site or supplying sanitation facilities and power, support from local businesses and individuals will ensure sustained customer traffic and vendor participation.

The non-economic and economic benefits of farmers markets might tempt you to implement one downtown. However, they must not be assumed to be simple revitalization tools. Farmers markets are complex efforts that often require the cooperation of a wide range of stakeholders (existing business owners, residents, community leaders), thoughtful planning, extensive programming and marketing, and of course funding! Who knows what this second round of funding from New York State will bring to the downtowns we’ll be working with this Fall but we will be keeping a look out for those farmers markets and keeping our eyes peeled for what works for them!

 
If you already have a farmers market downtown and are looking to assess its impact, take a look at this economic impact study of the farmers market in Downtown El Paso: http://downtownelpaso.com/economic-ripples-felt-from-downtown-artist-and-farmers-market/