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Shawn Vestal: Like the market? Then spend some lettuce

Sat., Sept. 8, 2012, midnight

Ken Stanley, right, with Passionate Produce, shows Ingrid Beal, of St. Maries, which fruits and vegetables were grown organically, on Friday at the Spokane Public Market, 24 W. Second Ave. (Colin Mulvany)
Ken Stanley, right, with Passionate Produce, shows Ingrid Beal, of St. Maries, which fruits and vegetables were grown organically, on Friday at the Spokane Public Market, 24 W. Second Ave. (Colin Mulvany)

Nearly every Friday for a year or so, my son and I have made a little trip to the Spokane Public Market.

We get a drink, buy some fruits and vegetables and maybe a piece of fish or a tiny cheesecake. Sometimes we’ve eaten pizza or tacos. The vendors are nice to the boy, and it reminds me of going around with my parents in the little Idaho town I grew up in when I was a kid, saying hi to everyone. No big deal. A small, good thing.

Some days the market is busier than others. Lately I can’t escape the feeling that it is not all that busy all that often, which is disappointing, because it’s the kind of place I like having in my town.

Not to be a shill about it, but if you share that feeling, then get down there and pick up some lettuce or a pork butt. My sense is that more of us like the market in principle than in practice.

The year-round, indoor market, at 24 W. Second Ave., is just wrapping up its second summer. It opened in June 2011. Business was stronger last year, and it has not been all that vendors might have hoped for this summer. But the president of the market’s board, Eric Johnson, says it’s going to take time to establish itself in the community’s mind and habits.

“It’s a three-year climb,” he said. “If you want to prove that you’re legitimate to people in Spokane, you’ve got to be in business three years. That’s what we’re prepared for.”

The market is definitely a fledgling enterprise, and efforts to compare it to the Pike Place Market don’t do it any favors. Johnson said there are about 20 regular vendors, with a rotating cast of 20 or more, depending on the day and time. It’s open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Dennis Fredericks, the market’s manager, said there are a lot of changes and growth coming. A second phase opening next year will create space for 70 vendors – up to 100 including outdoor spots during the summer – and Fredericks says that he thinks they’ll be able to fill those spots.

He says it’s still an uphill battle to get Spokane to embrace the place, but that he’s hopeful it will gain a greater foothold over time. The lineup at the market today includes 48 vendors, he said, selling everything from regional produce to fish to beef and pork to bread and baked goods; you can get a knife sharpened or buy organic eggs; you can also get arts and crafts items.

“We’ve been getting a guy in who’s selling goat meat – but he also turns his own wooden bowls,” Fredericks said.

Still, it’s a slow curve. Part of that is the nature of the town – the urban core isn’t exactly bustling, and we’re slow to adopt new things that don’t come pre-sold, like Trader Joe’s or Old Navy.

The slow ramp up does make it hard on vendors. Morgan Oyler started a small coffee business, Thom’s Hand-Brewed Coffee, at the market, but is now re-evaluating whether it’s going to work for him. Oyler shut down his coffee stand for several weeks while he ran for the state House, as a Republican in the 3rd District; he didn’t make it through the primary, and now he’s not sure he will reopenthe stand. He said vendors face a variety of obstacles, including expensive permitting for food service and slow foot traffic. For someone like him, in particular, steady sales are crucial.

The catch-22, he said, is that vendors need more people to come in, and the market needs more vendors to draw people in.

“It’s easy to get people in once,” he said. “You have to get them in regularly.”

Johnson agreed that business was not fantastic during the summer, but he emphasized that it’s a retail operation that is facing the same obstacles in the recession as other businesses. He said the nonprofit market has a lot going in its favor for the long haul: Core vendors are committed and the market has a good deal with the building’s owners that allow it to progress from a lease to purchase in a favorable way.

Given all that, he said, “things are going pretty well.”

They’ve got their work cut out for them, and they know it. But if you’re someone who wants to see the place succeed, then you do, too.

Buy something.

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

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