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Wednesday, April 21,2010

To market, to market

Lansing’s new City Market gears up for its Saturday grand-opening celebration

by Joe Torok
The Lansing City Market migrated a few small steps closer to the Grand River, but vendors, administrators and city leaders hope the move results in a giant leap for downtown.

Vendors and organizers are preparing to officially celebrate the market’s new, modernized digs with grand opening festivities Saturday, April 24, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


The City Market, established in 1909, has been open in its new location since early January. The old location, which opened in 1938 a few dozen yards north and east at the corner of Cedar and Shiawassee streets, is in the midst of demolition.


Not all vendors made an immediate move in the early days of the new building. Since the “soft opening,” some vendors have delayed opening due to contracting issues, but market manager John Hooper says, despite delays and a bit of vendor angst, capacity has reached 100 percent, with even more vendors looking for a space.


A new face has popped up since the move: City Fish has joined the ranks of vendors at the market. Owner Steve Joseph also runs two Scalawags restaurants in town, but at the market, his lake creatures are sold fresh to take home and cook yourself. Joseph says he specializes in wild caught (i.e., non-farm raised) fish such as walleye, whitefish and lake perch from Michigan waterways.


A few market stalls hold signs promising a vendor will be coming soon. Caruso’s Candy Kitchen has such a sign, but Hooper says the confectioner that makes homemade candies and popcorn will be up and running by the weekend. Uncle John’s Cider Mill will have a home in the market as well, selling products from its Fruit House Winery. But with its liquor license not yet finalized, only samples will be available for the festivities.


Two spaces will likely remain unoccupied for the grand opening. Longtime vendor Shoua’s Kitchen may be open by then, but Hooper says coordinating a half-dozen contractors to finish installing equipment has been an incredible challenge. One space will definitely remain a work-in-progress: the one belonging to The Waterfront, the City Market’s highly anticipated anchor restaurant to be operated by the owners of Williamston’s River House Inn. Hooper says that a late-spring/earlysummer opening is expected.


So far, vendors seem satisfied with the new space, despite a design often described as that of a pole barn. Kevin Nichols of Bella Harvest, an organic produce vendor, says the new infrastructure is far superior tothe previous market building. Dead spots at the end of corridors in the old, H-shaped building meant some vendors saw little foot traffic.


“Now, people are almost forced to make a loop around and see every vendor,” Nichols said. At the grand opening, Nichols will offer a buy one-vegetable-getanother-half-off special, and he hopes to have a fresh supply of locally produced, organic salad greens as well, possibly along with some other early crops that have taken off in what has been a fantastic early-growing season.


The biggest improvement in the new market, Nichols says, has been felt, not seen. “The old building was poorly insulated with gaps in the doors this big,” he said, holding a thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. “And with no air conditioning in the summer, we just sat in our sweat.”


Hooper makes Nichols’ anecdotal claim of better insulation more concrete: “We’ve cut heating costs by two-thirds,” Hooper says. “That’s a significant savings for both the market and the city.”


Along with the new building, vendors have adjusted to new hours as well. The market is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and vendors are required to serve the public a minimum of 40 hours a week. Those late-morning opening times on weekdays, though, have some vendors concerned.


Magda Seif of Seif Foods, which will offer $1 off for every $10 in purchases this weekend, says many loyal customers want to have their shopping finished as early as possible.


“Opening at 11 a.m. can be a problem,” she says. “Sometimes, people are waiting outside before we open.”


Joseph of City Fish agrees. “We miss a ton of people in the morning,” he says. “From 3 to 7 p.m., it really slows down. We have to address that, or we may start losing vendors.”


Hooper
says a problem with the previous market vendor agreement was that some
stalls were open when others were not, resulting in an inconsistent
shopping experience. So now each vendor is required to remain open
during normal market hours.


In
addition, the marketing strategy of the new City Market tends toward
gentrification. Hooper says the plan is to position the market as a
grocery store alternative by attracting what he calls “urban dwellers”
who live nearby and may shop after work. Suburbanites, who work
downtown until 5 p.m., are targeted as well.


With
an extra hour to shop in the new building (the old location closed at 6
p.m.), Hooper hopes the market will see growth in new demographics.


“Personally,
I would like to stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Hooper says. “That’s
the way many urban markets operate.” He notes, however, that extended
hours are available to vendors upon request, contingent on market
supervision. When The Waterfront restaurant opens, it will operate late
into the evening, and others, such as Hickory Corners, have already
taken advantage of extended hours, a privilege open to all vendors, Hooper says.


Parking
is another ever-present worry on the minds of vendors. Bob’s Produce
owner Bob Falsetta is concerned about parking as the Market grows into
its new location and planned development sprouts up on the corner of
Cedar and Shiawassee.


Falsetta is especially concerned with parking during the annual Common Ground festival in July.


“I’m thinking of not even opening that week,” Falsetta said.


In
the short term, free parking should not be a pressing issue, but if
planned development becomes a reality, the abundant free lspace the
market now enjoys may go away.


“We’re
an urban public market,” Hooper says. “If you go to Pike’s Place in
Seattle, you’re parking eight blocks away. You’re always going to have
parking issues.”


But before then, the market’s grand opening hopes to build on the buzz generated by its new home.


Prior
to City Market’s opening Saturday, Hooper, Mayor Virg Bernero and other
dignitaries will speak before a ribbon is cut at 8:45 a.m. Live bands
are scheduled to perform at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Guest speakers,
demonstrations, face painting, pie-eating contests for kids and other
events will fill the day.


Nichols
says his Bella Harvest stand had its best day ever when the new
building opened in January. “I hope the grand opening is even more
successful,” he says.

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