May 16, 2013
Produce market embraces west Michigan growers

A new urban market in Grand Rapids, Mich., debuted May 4 with a massive outdoor seasonal produce space. The opening of the outdoor phase of the $30 million, 130,000-square-foot facility on 3.5 acres will be followed by the arrival of a year-round three-story indoor marketplace in July.

Downtown Market, located in a formerly downtrodden area of the city, is being described as a state-of-the art center of commerce for the culinary arts and fresh local foods. Among its drawing cards is the accessibility to more than 12,000 fruit and vegetable farms in the surrounding 11-county area, which represents an estimated $2 billion in annual sales.

“The Downtown Market has a lot of potential, and so we thought it would be great to give it a try,” said Megan Visser, marketing director for Visser Farms, grower of between 65 and 100 varieties of produce in nearby Zeeland, Mich.

“It promises to bring some very different concepts to Grand Rapids, and we see these as great opportunities of growth and development for the city and for our business as well,” said Megan’s husband, Case, sales representative for the farm, which has a presence in several other farmers’ markets in the region. “Grand Rapids has already been a major hub for our business. We have great success vending at other markets in the area, have established clientele, and we are looking forward to adding this location for our business.”

Case Visser was part of the Food & Farm Advisory Committee during the planning stages for the project, which is expected to attract 500,000 visitors annually. He said he was among those from the agricultural community offering feedback, advice and input on rules, regulations, structural design and other concerns the market developers expressed.

“We think the opening of the Downtown Market will continue to fuel the already booming farm-to-table movement,” Case Visser said. “Grand Rapids has been a successful leader in this effort. Farm-to-table is now the diet of west Michigan. It’s been a very beneficial movement for local agriculture and for the local economy.”

Claire Duthler, manager and event coordinator for Downtown Market, said nearly all of the available 91 exterior stalls were spoken for as the opening date neared.

“The main reason for the market is to be a food hub to source food produced by local agricultural vendors and farmers and as an outlet for them to sell Michigan products,” Duthler said. “All of the vendors are extremely excited, with many of them being part of the Food & Farm Advisory Committee and having talked about what works in markets. They definitely see the potential that is there for this space.”

Duthler said the market would be used by growers to distribute their products elsewhere, including to chefs from local restaurants seeking fresh produce for their menus. Several growers plan to use the market as a distribution point for their Community Support Agriculture programs, and as a showplace to recruit members to their CSA operations.

“It’s also about them being able to teach the customer how the products are grown,” she said. “There’s a lot of ignorance out there on the part of people who have no idea where their food is coming from.”

While the outside vending area will operate three days a week through November, and on Saturdays only December through April, the year-round indoor space will include a produce-only area operated by a single vendor who will take product from other area farms. It will be supplemented in the offseason by fruits and vegetables from other areas of the country.

The project is coordinated through a partnership of the city of Grand Rapids’ Downtown Development Authority and Grand Action, a nonprofit group of local business leaders who also have been responsible for the development of a downtown arena and convention center in the past two-plus decades. It is being financed through a range of public and private sources, including tax credits, grants, donations, bonds and private investment.

The market’s planning committee sought to make the facility a “center of local food excitement,” devising a mixed-use concept that combines facilities for food production, food retailing and restaurants, the outdoor seasonal farmers’ and crafts market, produce distribution, craft studios, food and health education and events. A 4,000-square-foot certified commercial kitchen will house a kitchen incubator program.

Nearly 3,000 square feet of space has been allocated to produce storage and distribution to support farmers selling to area restaurants and institutions. Upper level spaces provide 31,000 square feet for offices or housing. In total, the buildings offer 178,000 square feet of leasable, programming and common space, while still leaving room for 214 parking spaces on the site.

The core of the indoor market will be 16 to 20 vendor stalls that house independent, owner-operated businesses featuring a wide range of local fresh and prepared foods. These stalls have been designed to maximize food production within the market, such as bread baking, butchering and sausage making, cheese making, ice cream/candy making, and pasta production. The tenant mix will also include produce, seafood, flowers and a variety of ethnic foods.

Tasting rooms for Michigan wineries and beer makers will complement several restaurants that feature Michigan food and drink, including a brewpub. Unique design elements include a rooftop greenhouse and apiary adjacent to a demonstration kitchen/event space and community meeting rooms.

It features several sustainable design elements in what is being called the first LEED-certified market in the country, including green construction materials, geothermal and advanced energy efficiency, composting and innovative waste handling, natural lighting and public transportation initiatives.

The market is offering numerous opportunities for partnerships in the education, health care, economic development and social service sectors.

Michigan State University’s Kent County Extension office will be housed in the facility.

The Kent County Intermediate School District is bringing The Kent Career Tech Center’s Culinary/Hospitality and Health Sciences Early College Academy into the market beginning next fall.

“We designed the Downtown Market to be a place where people of all ages can explore and collaborate while enriching our urban culture,” said Mimi Fritz, president and CEO of the Downtown Market.

“We will facilitate a program for wholesale distribution, and have built two semi loading docks for such purposes,” Fritz said. “We also exist in a location that makes food accessible to those that do not have easy access to not only grocery stores, but fresh and local products.”

The downtown market isn’t the only such venture in the vicinity. When it kicked off its 91st season on May 4, the nearby Fulton Street Farmers Market unveiled its new 2,000-square-foot indoor vendor space. The indoor facility is the final phase of a $2.9 million project that also included the addition of a roof to the popular 118-stall outdoor market space and several infrastructure upgrades completed in 2012. The final phase of the project cost $500,000.

– Gary Pullano


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