Erie Street Market: The seeds of its future are buried in its past

Erie street market    Drove by the Erie Street Market/Civic Auditorium  the other day.  Looked past the grime and saw a gem. Hope others can see it too. And that with some foresight and planning the market,  which has occupied that place along the banks of Swan Creek for over a century, will not become just another a squandered piece of history and future opportunity for Toledo?  We can take some comfort from the good folks at Libbey Glass have opted not to abandon this historic jewel in the Warehouse District, otherwise some of the “all-too-eager-to destroy-old-things” crowd would have already flattened the site with bulldozers.  We are learning, however, that Mayor Collins is negotiating with someone to take over the building.  Good. Good? Maybe. Maybe not so good. Lots of questions linger. Like who?  Like what?  My attempts to get an answer from the mayor’s office has been answered, partially.  PIO Lisa Ward says she is still working on providing answers to my questions  (Lisa Ward’s full response is in the comments section) One of the many questions I have  begs an answer  and that is that if the city does sell or lease the ESM to a private entity, will it relinquish control of the property and any control over how it’s used in the future.

 Will the city try, in some way, to protect the historic and cultural value of the site? Or will we merely furlough the future of the historic marketplace to the fate of financial expediency? I hope not.

 

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Civic Auditorium/ESM after city began using it for storage and offices

 

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Civic Auditorium and Wholesale Market circa 1951

At the very least, whoever takes up residence in bays of that building, one might reasonably assume would be a local grocery or food merchant who can work in tandem with the current Toledo Farmers Market vendors and the concept of local food that is locally grown. And that they understand it’s not just about shopping, but it’s also about the person-person shopping experience.  That’s the central point of my concerns. The Erie Street Market and other public markets are not just about food shopping, they are about a cultural urban experience. Hopefully the city fathers and mothers of Toledo also get that point when they look for some future company  to take over the site.  It’s in their hands that they will do the right thing. And for those of us who think the market needs to perpetuate its tradition as a food market of some type, the choices are lean. Doubt if a Trader Joes or Whole Foods would set up shop there, however, there are few local food retailers who might be a strong complement to that concept. Anything short of that, I fear will not end well.

My first choice however, that Toledo not lease the property at all, but merely returns to its public market roots.

An indoor farmer’s market?

Indoors public market?

Yes, Indoors.

Yes, year around – at least six days a week.

Yes. A real “public market”  that offers the best and widest choices for fresh food anyplace in the city or region! Period.

Just like it used to be many years ago when the bays of the old Toledo vendors market would open and farmers would pull their wagons and trucks inside and sell their food and other healthy, home-grown, hand crafted, and home-made food supplies to a demanding and hungry public. Only this time, we add all kinds of local food vendors to the mix of merchants offering candies, meats, fish, poultry, pastries, pastas, ethnic foods, organic and specialty items.  All in one place. A place that the people of Toledo already own.

Outdoor stalls at Toledo Farmer’s Market. Photo credit-Kay Lynne Schaller

This time, perhaps we make it a real marketplace that enhances and embraces the already popular Farmer’s Market that draws hundreds of faithful food shopper every week to the outdoor stalls along Superior Street.

I know. I know. I can hear the groans and objections already.

We tried it before and it didn’t work!

Why should the city be in the food and entertainment business?

We should just bulldoze it!

My quick responses to those popular complaints.

Yes, we did try a public market before. Or something like it. And contrary to the popular notion of failure, it actually it did work. For awhile. Depends on how you measure success. When the Erie Street Market opened in the mid-1990’s in the large cavernous old auditorium in Bay 4, the first year or so, was promising. It offered dozens of vendors and was often crowded on the weekends with  hundreds of folks, (me included) who found it to be a pretty cool place to buy food and/or meet with friends.  It clearly was not just a place to buy food, but a place to celebrate food. Complete with a cornucopia of exotic and ethnic choices, a rich blend of aromas and tastes, placed in a setting of vibrant energy and excitement. Add to that a pleasant mix of like-minded people and what you got was a unique and welcome gathering place for a sense of Toledo community.farm mark 2

So why did it turn sour?  Management, most likely, (although they will disagree), which included a number of factors.  A study done in 2004 by Marketing Venture of Portland Maine attributed its eventual demise to too many management changes, lack of adequate marketing, poor design, less than desirable infrastructure, and a location too far removed from the outdoor farmer’s market stalls. You can read that study here.

http://uac.utoledo.edu/Publications/Erie-Street-Market.pdf

Please note that the study does conclude that such a marketplace would be feasible with the right design and management of the venue.  In other words…. if you build it, and run it correctly—they will come.

Manage it correctly. That’s key. From my perspective, it seems that when the Erie Street Market began allowing flea market and T-shirt and non-food vendors into the venue, they lost the grand vision of what it was supposed to be. And once that happened, it was just a matter of time before most of the stalls were empty and the padlock crew moved in to do their work.

The second complaint I hear is why should the city be in the food business or the entertainment business? Always think this one is silly. Guess one can make the same argument about libraries, or parks, or golf courses, baseball stadiums, or events center, etc etc.  We should shouldn’t look at a public market as a financial opportunity but as a recreational opportunity in the broader sense of the word. This is where the city needs some leaders with vision and will. It seems far too often good ideas get KO’ed in this town by the pervasive naysayers who can’t see past the blind spot of limited government to recognize the value of anything  beyond street repair.  Or those cynics who think Toledo should just quit trying to build anything positive for the future.

Enough. This city was built on ideas and vision and determination. Ideas that were not often popular at the time, but leaders of the past were stubborn and headstrong. They made things work.  The rainmakers of labor, industry and politics often worked together with a infectious spirit to breathe life into their ideas, inventions and projects,  giving us the roots upon which this city still depends and survives.  We need to do the same. To understand there is economic value in creating opportunities that bring people together in the pursuit of nurturing a stronger sense of place and community.

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The Toledo food market under construction

The other reason that Toledo should be involved in the creation of a real public marketplace is that it’s being done with great success in other communities, large and small, all across the nation.  I’m not just talking about outdoor farmer market stalls for summer and seasonal produce, but indoor venues that sell far more.  In Cleveland, the Westside Market is a treasure island for food lovers of all ethnicity and persuasion.  (Worth a drive to Cleveland to check it out) Same for the Findlay Market in Cincinnati, The North Market in Columbus, the Worthington Public Farmer’s Market. To the north of us in Detroit, the Eastern Market is yet another melting pot of people, culture and foods which features a new and expanded indoor market place where one can spend hours browsing the aisles taking in the sights and sound and smells of a unique experience. The list is long and getting longer of those cities where such indoor public markets are helping to increase the cultural awareness and urban vitality of the community. We need this for Toledo.

Over the years we have steadily abandoned downtown Toledo and with the constant drip of energy drained from the area,  little has been left behind to work with. But things change, and with the recent success of 5/3 rd Field and Huntington Center and Imagination Station and a growing popularity of downtown living venues, the growth potential here is obvious.

Adding to that synergy are the plans of Pro-Medica to breathe some new life in downtown Toledo with a move to the old historic steam plant on Water Street and the purchase of the Key Bank building. With those changes to downtown, plus the building of a new downtown riverfront Metropark, we are getting some much needed traction for downtown growth. Let’s build on that momentum.  Time to return to the future.

What do you think?

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6 Comments

Filed under Old Places and Faces, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Erie Street Market: The seeds of its future are buried in its past

  1. Barb Burgess

    This is a beautiful building. It sure tops the West Side Market building in Cleveland!
    I hope it will be returned to its original glory! Barb

    • When it was first built, and before the city made some “improvement” to the buildings façade, it had a unique and interesting design. Could be made into a showplace.

  2. Tom Glassmoyer

    I have lived 1/2 block from this building for 12 years and when my wife and I bought our condo one of the main reasons was how active the Erie Street Market was. It didn’t fail, the city failed to do its part for the vendors. We heard this from countless small merchants who were in it. The 2 restaurants that were in the stage area were always packed on weekends during the first years there. Every day in almost all weather there were people who walked from downtown to eat and shop on their lunch hours.
    It was a destination and for almost two years after the city forced the vendors out there were tour buses that stopped at the Libbey Glass Outlet store and the visitors were dismayed that the market had closed. There were some issues in regard to vendor hours and days that they were open but the larger issues were in regard to how the facility was being managed.

    It is a jewel and would be viable if managed properly by professional. As with Portside, The Docks and other ventures, the city needs to step aside and let the business flourish.

    • I agree. City can own it, just like the own the golf courses, but they have hired professionals who know what they are doing to to run them and it works.

  3. Tom Glassmoyer

    The Warehouse District has asked for letters of support to be sent to Lucky’s Market based in Boulder, Colorado. The are considering a location here in Toledo. They currently have a store in Columbus and will be opening a new one in Ann Arbor. They are similar to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s but no details of how the Erie Street building would be offered to them.

  4. Lisa Ward

    First, nicely written post, I did receive one email from you ten days ago and I am still trying to provide all the answers to your questions. Part of the delay was your email ended up in my spam folder, I found it when cleaning things up four days ago. I do apologize for not emailing you to give you an update when I received your email, I thought I’d have the answers sooner.

    As a former blogger, I enjoy your blog, I appreciate how much time it takes to do it and I will get you the information you requested which perhaps can inspire an updated or new post on the Erie Street Market.

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