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Wednesday, September 1,2010

The ripening

Six months after a risky move, it’s harvest time at the Lansing City Market

by Lawrence Cosentino
When the Lansing City Market moved into its new digs in February, vendors and city officials must have dreamed of hot August days.

Back when the snow flew, there was brave talk of reinventing the moribund market as an urban riverfront gathering place, with bike and water access, regular hours and a zippier mix of restaurants, prepared food and fresh produce.


But the plan to demolish the old market and build a smaller one next to the river as part of a larger development stirred doubts. Critics wondered whether the city wasn’t rolling the whole zucchini into the river, $50,000 annual subsidy and all, just to get rid of it.


Flash forward to a recent Thursday afternoon. If city planners had called Central Casting for the younger, more river-y and bike-y demographic the new market is after, they couldn’t have done better.


The place was swarming with moms and tots, for Aug. 19 was Mom and Tot Stroller Day, the latest in a string of targeted promotions. Young professionals (or cleverly deployed ringers) sucked down beer at the new Waterfront Bar and Grill in the market’s southwest corner.


Despite the heat, the bar’s outdoor terrace tables were full of downtown workers ogling the redeveloped Ottawa Power Station across the river.


A woman with a sandwich in one hand and a drink in the other elbowed aside several shoppers as she made a beeline for the river.


“I have to catch a boat,” she cried, as if Lansing Metro Marina’s cruises on the Grand had been going on for years, not weeks.


At the other end of the market, two women in bike helmets sucked on gelato with an air of triumph after biking all the way to the market from Williamston.


A professional woman from Lansing Community College slipped a watermelon into her purse.


“I can’t believe I’m going to carry this, but the yellow ones are so sweet,” she said.


Fruit vendor Kevin Nichols said his business has “close to tripled” since the move.


“Every day there are customers I’ve never seen before,” Nichols said.


Two key veteran vendors — cheese man Glenn Hills and a major skeptic, 50-year City Market fruit man Bob Falsetta — said their trade is up too.


“I was surprised,” Falsetta said. “I thought people would come, see it and they’d leave, but they seem to be coming back.”


Neva Austin of Aggie Mae’s Bakery, the market’s early morning hot spot, said her business has “easily” quadrupled in the new market. Last week, she hired a seventh employee.


There are no market-wide sales figures, but the city is tracking other metrics, according to Scott Keith, CEO of Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, which runs the market.


The new market’s ATM is spitting out three times more cash than the old market, Keith said — more transactions than either of the ATMs at the other two city-owned entertainment facilities, Lansing Center or Cooley Law School Stadium.


Sales from EBT, the USDA food stamp program, have also tripled, according to Hooper.


There are still kinks to be worked out. On hot afternoons, the sun beats ruthlessly on the patio. A planned canopy was cut from the new market’s budget. The Friends of the Market dissolved in the acrimony over the old market’s demolition, and a new group has yet to coalesce.


The biggest fight at the market is over the posted hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays). John Decker, a key City Market vendor of 15 years, said it’s “stupid” not to open at 9 a.m., as the old market did. Decker said “droves” of longtime customers, particularly older ones, are being turned away.


But Keith and market manager John Hooper are determined to move the market to the retail world where people shop after work. They say the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. slot is non-negotiable. Neither is the new market’s iron rule that every vendor has to be there during posted hours.


Vendors are free to stay open earlier or later than posted hours, but that’s not an ideal solution. While Neva Austin serves breakfast goodies from 7 a.m to 11 a.m., she sees other venderings losing a lot of business.


"I’d like to see it open in the morning," she said.


Hooper is reluctant to burn the carrot at both ends and “burden” the vendors with a 10- or 11-hour day.


For now, Hooper is willing to swap the morning customers for the evening crowd. Eventually, when vendors can afford to hire help to cover all the hours, he hopes to be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Despite the flap over hours, Decker said he’s pleased with the new market overall.


“The view is awesome, the building is nice, and I’m very happy with our location,” Decker said. “We’re definitely changing from an older to a younger clientele.”


Hooper and Keith said vendors are “lined up” to move in when a second-floor mezzanine is put in. The city wants to track the new market through a full year, winter months included, before committing to building the mezzanine, Keith said.


The goal, according to Keith, is to shave the city subsidy by $10,000 each year until it disappears.


Meanwhile, the buzz on the market grows, with the help of relentless promotions and partnerships. Two weeks ago, the Waterfront Bar and the marina sponsored a cruise-and-schmooze with influential women from the area. MSU Professor Kim Byers, a City Market fan, walked through with a group of students from the Broad Graduate School of Management at MSU. While Hooper and I talked, a photojournalist from Chicago arrived to take pictures for a Web story on the nation’s greenest cities.


This month, the market will seed its biggest potential harvest of clientele yet by hosting a visit from 500 to 600 employees of the mammoth Accident Fund Insurance Co., due to move in across the river next spring.


“Hold on to your hat,” Decker said. “I see the potential to be hugely successful here.”


“I keep telling people that we’re only getting started,” Hooper said.



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