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Vestal: Spokane taking fresh approach

It’s Saturday morning. Do you know where your market is?

We’re at a high-water mark – at least for recent years – regarding the availability of fresh fruits, veggies, local foods and summer vibes here in the land of the buffet. There’s the regular downtown Spokane farmers market, 13 years old this summer, and the fledgling Spokane Public Market, a year-round indoor market with food and produce, as well as a variety of other vendors.

The new market is very cool, in the way that people of my ilk – we who might have a pair of Birkenstocks stashed away somewhere – tend to yearn for Portlandy things. I’ve been happy over several visits to purchase kale, spinach, Mexican cookies, pizza, coffee, cherries, a fruit drink for the kid. You can get your knives sharpened or find a bar of fancy soap, if that’s your deal.

If it sounds like I’m shilling, it’s only because I am. But let me shill a moment for the farmers markets, too. The downtown one has been a regular part of my family’s Saturday routine for years now, with a great variety of local produce, meat and other food. It’s in its second year of having moved away from a parking lot and onto a pleasant, grassy spot on Fifth Avenue.

So here’s to having both. They’re not the same thing, exactly, and I hope both flourish. Along with the Millwood farmers market, and the South Perry market and Liberty Lake market, and Coeur d’Alene market …

But the downtown markets are mine, they’re relatively close together, and their success feels more personal to me. And there’s a faithless little corner of my heart – a place where what I really think about Spokane collides with what I really hope for Spokane – that worries about this. That doubts. I mean, I’ve lived in smaller towns with larger farmers markets. So my initial reaction when I heard about the Spokane Public Market earlier this year was somewhat akin to a local blogger who wrote: “Don’t break my heart, Spokane Public Market.”

My concern is less over the people at the market and more over the rest of us and our ability to provide enough business to sustain it.

I mentioned this to Eric Johnson, the new board president of the market, and he told me he’d heard that reaction, too. But much more common, he said, was people who were excited and supportive and hopeful. And he said that the market’s first weeks of operation have been drawing more visitors than initially expected, good interest from vendors and a mounting momentum.

“It’s going to be a long-term process,” said Johnson. “It’s an exciting project. It’s scary, just like anything, but I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far.”

Johnson said that since opening in June, the market is seeing between 500 and 1,000 visitors a day, from Thursdays to Saturdays. He said interest from vendors has been strong, and many have been happy with sales. I’ve been there on days where the crowds seemed good and days when they seemed disappointingly small.

But it’s early yet. And the moment I stepped foot into the place, my skepticism turned into hope that the town would respond and the keep the market going – and that the vendors and people running the market could weather a bit of a wait for that to happen.

Johnson acknowledges that fundraising for the market has been slower than expected but says it’s gaining momentum. And he said the market is taking the long view.

The nagging, negative question: Is there room for both the public market and the farmers market? Are we a two-market downtown?

Johnson said he thinks so. “We’re a little bit different animal,” he said, noting that there is more of a variety of prepared foods and other items at the public market. There are plans to expand if things go well.

Diane Reuter, manager of the farmers market, said she thinks so, too.

“We’ve really got something different going on over here than they do over there,” she said. “I haven’t seen an effect, really. If anything, I think people are going to both.”

I hope they’re both right and that faithless little corner of my heart is wrong. In general, the region’s farmers markets have been doing well – new markets have been springing up, and sales are increasing, according to figures last year. Generally the trend toward fresher, local foods seems to be gaining momentum – enough so that it’s become a sometimes cloying source of foodie sanctimony.

So if this is that, I apologize. But I want these places in my town. If you do, too, and there’s room in your day and your budget, pay them a visit.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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