Seeds of Hope for Dallas Farmers Market
Look, you did not hear this here, OK? I don't want to have any of this attributed to me. Anyway, it's possible I overdid my Benadryl and maybe this is just one of those brain swerves like when I thought we were going to get bike paths. But I can't shake an eerie sense that something very good could be on the verge of happening to the Dallas downtown farmers market.
I know. I know. Crazy. But I have reasons.
We have talked about the farmers market before, you and I. I shared with you my theory that the market, not unlike Fair Park, was a thing that needed to be blown up by a bomb, so that innocent people would never again wander into it by accident and get depressed as hell.
That's how it is now. You have seen farmers markets in other cities, I know, in Fort Worth or Santa Fe, San Francisco or Coppell, and so you know how cool they can be. On the other hand, if you have been to our own farmers market downtown, especially on a weekday, then you also know the feeling of, "Help! I have fallen psychologically, and I can't get up."
Over the years the city has tried all sorts of fixes and none has ever put a dent in the massive depressive power of the Dallas Farmers Market. It is a place where nothing looks like it was ever alive. A colleague who moved here from another city remarked recently that the Dallas Farmers Market was the only one she had ever visited where the "farmers" sold Brussels sprouts in shrink wrap. Just be glad they don't sell dogs.
That's why I came up with my idea for the bombs and the salted earth. If it's destined to be a dead zone, let's just be honest about it.
But there was always that other distant possibility, the non-Jim Schutze solution, that instead of blowing it up and walling it off the city might find a way to make it ... to make it ... can I even spit the word out ... cool.
Yes. It happens. Elsewhere. There was a story in The New York Times recently saying that Grand Rapids, Michigan, will open a new $30 million, 130,000-square-foot "Downtown Market" next year designed to draw 500,000 visitors annually. The plans described in the Times piece sounded very cool. And I should add something here: I grew up in Michigan, and I know a thing or two about Grand Rapids. It's an extremely conservative Dutch Reform bastion, home of President Gerald Ford, that has always been historically one of the least cool cities in the nation, possibly in the world.
In fact, reading about their farmers market brought me to sort of a crisis point. I thought, "OK, if Grand Rapids is now going to be cooler than us, then we all just need to go shoot ourselves." That's what spurred me to try to catch up with our farmers market situation here.
We here at the Observer were the first ones to report a year ago that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm was considering proposals to take the market private, which seemed like a great idea. I also told you here about Eastern Market in Detroit, which really is one of the nation's best and most successful farmers markets, drawing millions of annual visitors from five states and Canada. The whole trick, the secret, the solution in Detroit was privatization.
I knew that Suhm's vision for a privatized market here had hit a speed bump when not enough interested parties showed up wanting to take it on. And, I mean, you can see why. It's sort of like signing a contract to make Oakland Cemetery more fun. More what fun?
But during that first go-round, a very interesting group did come forward, centered on restaurateur/investor Phil Cobb, his wife, Janet, and their son Blair Black. The Cobbs have a history of coolness. They were early major backers of the McKinney Avenue Trolley and by extension the whole redevelopment of McKinney Avenue and Uptown. Back when both Deep Ellum and the Bishop Arts District were still mainly places to get rebuilt truck transmissions, the Cobbs were helping give Uptown the quirky cobblestone appeal that brought it back to life.
The son, Black, gave a speech to a downtown group a year ago in which he described a totally redeveloped farmers market. It would focus on bringing locally and regionally grown food into an entire nexus of stalls, restaurants and shops, with some kind of residential element centered on the market. The thing I found most encouraging about his presentation was the degree to which he got the whole local-food movement as a basic cultural theme and market force.
That's what they're saying in Grand Rapids, too: A really smart, well-run farmers market in this day and age can be the big Hollywood beacon that draws young residents into the center of the city, helping to push up the tax base.
As it turns out, the negotiations here are very much back on the front burner and in fact are at sort of a tender moment where nobody wants much to talk about them in detail. The Cobb group is still the only contender. Black sent me a nice enough email saying, "Since we are currently working with the city of Dallas on the RFP (request for proposals), we are unfortunately unable to discuss anything about the market at this time."
But I was able to chat up Suhm, who was upbeat. She said the new privatized project, once it rolls out, will bring major comprehensive change. "This project is going to have restaurants, retail, housing, growers, crafts, the whole nine yards."
I asked her about some issues that came up when I spoke with property owners and stakeholders in the surrounding area. For example, the homeless issue. Robin McCaffrey, a planner and urban designer with Mesa Design Group who works with landholders in the area, told me he thinks there are ways to alleviate some friction by simply remapping major paths for foot traffic.
Suhm said the city's all over that and it's already part of the deal. She said, for example, that the city will help The Bridge, the main public homeless shelter, reconfigure its front entrance so that the shortest footpath to The Bridge is no longer straight across the market.
I asked her what the hold-up is. Why is this all in some kind of informational lock-down in which people don't feel comfortable spilling their guts to Jim Schutze the way they're supposed to? She said "It's a complex deal that you've got to negotiate with a lot of people."
I can see that. For one thing, this is the kind of project that can look rosier in the telescope than it does on the ground. I spoke last week with Tom Spicer, the specialty produce broker on North Fitzhugh Avenue by Jimmy's Market, who gave me a whole seminar on how the produce business works and does not work. He said the notion of the small farmer who makes his living hauling crops to a stall in the city is for the most part an urban myth.
Spicer explained to me that farmers don't have the time or very often the bent of mind to know and grow exactly the right products for stall sales at any given moment. He said a viable market capable of keeping its farmers in business has to include some element of wholesale brokerage to move the bulk of a farmer's product around to those points in the marketplace — restaurants, grocery stores, other wholesalers — that he can't get to just by coming to his stall.
So if Spicer is right, a farmers market won't work if it's premised on Joe Farmer coming to town every day to sell his beets to Betty. He needs to be able to sell some beets to Betty and more beets to American Food Service.
These protracted closed-door negotiations have become a source of nervousness for the major landholders all around the farmers market, all of which will make a buy-in by them trickier and trickier the longer this goes on. Leslie Ingendorf, whose family has been in the wholesale produce and landlord business there for a half century, says, "They've been very secretive. What's going on and what the plan is, I have no idea.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the city was trying to stall the area and take the property almost by eminent domain or something like that. I get so frustrated with the city, I have no idea what they're going to do."
In spite of all that, Suhm is resolute and optimistic that a new privatized reborn farmers market will be the wave that floats all boats in the entire southeast corner of downtown. I asked her if her wave will be as cool as the one they're building in Grand Rapids, the Uncool Capital of America.
"Ours will be better," she said. "We're excited about the project. It's going to take a while to get it done. But if we all focus on what we're trying to get done in each area and remember that we're all neighbors and we all have to live on this earth, I think we can get this settled out."
Great. Let's see, what all was that list again? Stay focused. All neighbors. Live on this earth. McCaffrey's thing about footpaths. Spicer's wholesale issue. Ingendorf's problem with secrecy. I asked Suhm when she hopes to get this all wrapped up and have something to take to the City Council.
"We're aiming at spring, probably April-Mayish," she said.
Wow. I need to go out right now and shop for one of those burlap over-the-shoulder grocery bags with a French picture on it. I fully intend to be cool when cool comes to town.
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