Dec 16, 2014
New Muskegon market debuts with ‘exciting’ first year

The impact of the local farm-to-table movement may not be more evident than in the development of a new farmers’ market in Muskegon, Michigan, only a few blocks away from where the previous market had operated for decades.

Fruits, vegetables, flowers and other farm goods are in abundance at the downtown Muskegon Farmers Market, which opened in the early summer of 2014.

John Zandstra, a vegetable and flower grower from Hudsonville, Michigan, is at the new market, as he had been at the former one for the previous 25 years.

The Zandstra Farms operator said he supported the new market “right from the start.” He likes how much easier it is to get to the new market, especially for travelers coming from the north.

“I think it’s a move that we needed to do,” Zandstra said. “It’s good for the community. It’s been good for the farmers. The best thing to happen in Muskegon is to move that market. Our income went up, we sold more and there are bigger crowds, since it’s a must destination for families to come to.

“Our worst day there is better than any best day in the other 25 years of the other place,” Zandstra said. “It’s been really good for downtown Muskegon.”

With a farm that takes part in seven markets in west Michigan, Zandstra said he has an abundance of return customers he has seen over the past 25 years, “as well as, with the new market, new consumers we’ve never seen before.”

He said the past summer yielded crowds “over 10,000 on a Saturday,” and he only expects the traffic to increase going forward.

“As long as you have good product and are fair to customers, they’ll keep coming back.”

The new market operates on Tuesdays and Thursdays during May through November, and Saturdays throughout the year. It’s a concept that carries strongly into the winter season, with a 12-bay area for about 15 vendors and customer seating.

Lori Gomez-Payne, who has been in the role of market master for eight years, said she has been pleased vendors and the community have accepted the new market, which routinely attracts more than 20,000 visitors weekly.

“It was exciting to be right there watching it actually open,” Gomez-Payne said. “It was full from June through the end of October. We don’t want to lose the momentum of summer. We’re still here.”

At its peak, the market had 120 vendors – 35 to 40 of which were fruit and vegetable producers.

All the vendors agreed to return this year, said Gomez-Payne. That result came despite some opposition to the move to the corner of West Western Avenue and Terrace Street, which mostly centered on parking concerns.

“One of the main issues, they claimed, was parking,” she said. “There’s plenty of parking downtown. They’ve discovered that and discovered downtown. Change is often an issue. I cannot tell you during the entire year how many people walked up and said, “I was against this, and I was so wrong,’ Most of them love it being here.”

The “number one complaint is it’s too busy, Gomez-Payne said. “They can’t shop, or get to their farmer. We didn’t make the aisles smaller, there’s just more people here. But it’s been met with so much positive feedback. People love it.”

The top concern she hears from vendors: “They’re absolutely exhausted. They were losing kids going back to college. They told me, ‘We’re done. We need to sleep now.'”

About two years ago, the Muskegon City Commission agreed to move the market from its Yuba Street location. The market would have celebrated its 50th season in that location in 2014.

There was a belief the new market would attract new customers, including those who live or work downtown, residents of the urban core where fresh produce is hard to find and those who found it difficult to access the old market.

The Yuba Street location was chosen in 1962, when the old market was being displaced by the construction of what was then known as the Skyline Route and is now called Moses Jones Parkway. The market had been located on East Webster Avenue between Spring and Cedar streets since 1935.

The new farmers’ market is located on a 4-acre parcel that is part of 23 acres purchased in 2002 by the nonprofit Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. A private fundraising effort with hundreds of donors generated most of the $3.9 million to build the market, which was donated to the city. The Michigan Strategic Fund issued a $710,000 performance-based grant for the project.

“The Downtown Muskegon Development Corporation wanted to bring it to a downtown area to help as a catalyst to get more development growing downtown,” Gomez-Payne said. “A market has been in the Muskegon area since 1884. It’s moved three times – all within a five-block radius.”

The attractions to the new location, including a view of the waterfront, have benefitted vendors and customers, Gomez-Payne said.

“We had walk-in traffic on Tuesdays like we never had before,” she said. “It’s all related to the market being an economic driver. That was their goal – the development aspect of it.”

She said the new spot has involved an enhanced marketing strategy.

“Marketing wise, it’s a whole different group and we’re recognizing people want to be downtown,” she said. “One of the driving factors is we have a stage for music. It’s a welcoming environment with beautiful, hopping community events with a marketplace attached. It happens every week. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.”

Such activities as a local author meet-and-greet day held in late November are among the offerings incorporating community themes.

She said there are plans to incorporate a commercial kitchen into the market that will be 40 percent for community use, with the rest being targeted as incubator space for fledgling businesses.

“On the agriculture side, it’s the connection to local food, where it comes from and how it’s prepared,” she said. “Schools have lost a lot of home economics programs. This gives the ability to get a classroom of little kids to come in, meet a farmer who grows and pickles or strawberries. They can come in and learn how to make jam and learn how to sell it.

“It creates a relationship with the farmers themselves,” she said. “Little kids don’t know where pickles come from. This way they can see how to grow it. We will provide anything we can do when it comes to that. We’re not quite there yet. But we’re looking hugely at being service-oriented for the community, and I think that will then lead to be much more service-oriented for the farmer.”

Partnerships also are developing between growers and downtown restaurants that purchase produce on a regular basis, Gomez-Payne said.

The market also benefits from a recent change in state law that allows wine vendors to offer taste samples.

“I can’t believe how many people will taste wine at seven in the morning,” Gomez-Payne said. “Their eyes light up when they see it. We have two consistent wineries that come here. People love having it here. It’s a little extra perk. It adds to the ambiance.”

She said it also has generated discussions between the winemakers and farming vendors who may have an interest in expanding their own winemaking efforts.

The Muskegon Farmers Market is one of the region’s most successful participants in the Double Up Food Bucks program, which makes it easier for low-income Americans to eat fresh fruit and vegetables while supporting family farmers and growing local economies. The program doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which used to be called food stamps.

Gomez-Payne said the market is the third largest in the state for participation in the SNAP program, which uses the Electronics Benefits Transfer (EBT) system for retail payments.

“If we didn’t have that program, the farmers wouldn’t be here,” she said. “One farmer said he makes the equivalent of (Gomez-Payne’s) wage just through EBT.”

Gary Pullano

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