DDA says marketplace a hit, rentals slow

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Patrons peruse the Escanaba Farmer’s Market recently. According to the Escanaba Downtown Development Authority, foot traffic has been up at the market since is moved to its new location on Ludington Street.

ESCANABA — It has been just over a year since the Escanaba marketplace officially opened on Ludington Street, and according to Downtown Development Authority Director Ed Legault, the response from the public has been positive.

“Everyone that sees it absolutely loves it and we’ll see more and more people utilize it as it’s more publicized,” he said.

Over the marketplace’s first year, it saw use by the farmers market each Wednesday and Saturday during the summer months. The marketplace, however, was only used for other events three times since July 2017.

After a lengthy construction phase that began in August of 2016, the marketplace building officially opened in July of last year with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the 1,846-square-foot facility located on the 1500 block of Ludington Street. Since then, the $1.1 million building has been the regular home of the city’s farmer’s market.

“We’ve obviously utilized it quite a bit for the farmer’s market, and that has gone extremely well. We have more vendors and more people participating as customers at the farmer’s market than we’ve ever had in the past. It’s been a record, record year for us as far as that goes,” said Legault.

While the market serves as the marketplace’s most frequent tenant — drawing vendors and visitors to the building Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons throughout the summer months — part of the reason for the facility’s creation was to allow for other events to take place downtown.

So far, the facility has been rented three times, twice by businesses for events, and once for the annual Escanaba Downtown Clean Up. Because the clean up was sponsored in part by the DDA, the rental fee for that event was waived.

Legault sees more events on the horizon and expects the facility will have greater use as more businesses and groups become aware of the venue and rental process.

Outside of the periods reserved for the farmer’s market, the facility is available daily for a fee, but certain groups could qualify for significantly reduced rental rate. Businesses located within the DDA footprint can rent the facility for a business event once a year, Monday through Friday, for around $150, a substantial discount. Community groups can also rent the facility at a reduced rate or even for free if the group approaches the DDA and asks for the authority to act as an event sponsor — however, the ultimate decision on reducing rates or offering the space for free is up to the DDA board.

“We wanted to build something that’s going to last a long time, that citizens can utilize and will remember, whether it’s coming to the farmers market, the Downtown Clean Up (or) other events,” said Legault.

With the limited number of outside rentals, much of the community response has been related to the twice-weekly markets. The DDA is currently working with Michigan State University Extension to conduct a survey of market participants, which will show how the new facility has impacted the experience for vendors and shoppers.

The old farmers market, located on the corner of 1st Avenue North and 9th Street, will remain a parking lot, as it was when the market was not in session.

“We’ll take down the stuff that’s there and either reuse it or retire it,” said Legault of the signs and counters built along the edge of the lot.

While the new facility adds protection from the elements, it is not designed to operate as a winter marketplace. Despite constant heating and winterizing, there was still damage to sink fixtures from cold temperatures. Repairs were also needed to the facility’s irrigation system, but Legault does not believe the damage was weather related.

“It was … pretty minimal for a building that’s that big and that complicated,” said Legault, adding that the majority of the repairs related to cold temperatures were along the wall that absorbed the cold north wind. The authority will explore ways to mitigate the cold on that portion of the building this winter.

Besides the building not being suitable for winter use, Legault doesn’t believe a winter market is feasible in Escanaba. Much of the produce sold at the market would need to be grown outside the area, which would put the market in direct competition with area grocery stores that ship in produce.

“I would love to have the market be open all the time, but the reality is our climate does not allow people to grow produce all year long,” he said.