NEWARK – When the event page for the Canal Market District’s dedication ceremony went live, organizers were hoping the May 27 event would create some buzz.
But they were stunned when after 48 hours, 320 people were already planning to attend.
Over the past few weeks, that number has climbed to close to 450. More than 1,500 additional people on social media have expressed interest in stopping at the event to check out the new downtown pavilion for the first time.
Having that kind of turn out — in downtown Newark, on a Friday night — to celebrate the market’s completion is huge, said Sarah Wallace, chairwoman of the Thomas J. Evans Foundation.
“It’s going to be a really exciting day on May 27th,” she said. “But that’s just the beginning. We have a very busy summer ahead.”
Her father Gib Reese, former chairman of the foundation, spent decades envisioning an enclosed farmers market downtown. Over the last few years, Wallace has worked to make his dream come true.
The foundation has contributed more than $5 million to building the market and will lease it to the city of Newark, which will sublease it to the newly created Canal Market District and Enterprise Hub. The first market will be June 3, and it will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday through the end of October.
As opening day approaches, construction on the pavilion is being completed and the schedule has been tweaked. Everything, including the locations of each vendor, has been strategically planned. Every farm has been inspected by the members of the market’s board to make sure their products are made or grown locally.
But after all that, the only thing that’s truly going to make the Canal Market a success is if people come on Tuesdays and Fridays to shop, said Director Bryn Bird.
“So many people have put their money and their hearts into this, they have given so much to make this great and it’s really up to the community,” she said. “It really comes down to the community showing up.”
If the last few years are any indication, customers seem to be ready for the market to open.
The Licking County Local Food Council’s past two Local Food Weeks have been successful, sparking conversations about cooking and eating food produced in central Ohio. But discussions and anecdotes are just one aspect.
The Local Food Council cites the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s 2010 local food assessment, which includes findings by Ohio State University researchers stating that 98 percent of Ohioans believe it is very important or somewhat important for state and local governments to develop systems so consumers can access locally produced food.
“Everyone says they want this, so lets see it,” Bird said. “It does take a little bit of a habit change to start shopping at a farmers market, but it’s not impossible.”
Her challenge to community members is simple — put $25 in your pocket twice a week and spend it at the market on your way home from work. Better yet, buy the fruits, vegetables, bread, meat and cheese your family needs from local vendors and then supplement that with items from the grocery store.
Wallace said she’s hoping that’s exactly what consumers do, because the first year is going to be crucial in keeping quality vendors at the market in the coming years.
“It’s critical for the long-term success of the market for all of us who work and live here to come to downtown Newark and spend money,” she said. “If the vendors aren’t able to sell, if we don’t buy their products, they will lose their enthusiasm.”
The best farmers markets are the ones that offer a diverse range of products — from spices and honey to desserts and fresh vegetables — to attract consumers from all different walks of life. Those can’t exist without lots of vendors and lots of customers said Jaime Moore, market manager of the Dublin, Bexley and Worthington farmers market.
“It’s a chicken and egg kind of thing,” she said. “You have to build (a market) so (customers) will come but they have to come so you can build it. Those have to work in tandem.”
That kind of variety won’t last at a market where vendors aren’t making money, Moore said.
“It requires a commitment and it is about putting your money where your mouth is,” she said. “One of the best ways you can support is not just going, it’s actually spending your dollars.”
One of the challenges and benefits of a farmers market is that some products come and go with the season. Some customers will find out they can’t buy corn and apples at the market year round, but have access to other items instead, Moore said.
“Unlike a grocery store, we can’t get what we want at any time of year,” she said. “So much of that first year is educating the consumers.”
A big turnout at the beginning of the season would be wonderful, said Brian Williams, an agriculture specialist at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and secretary of the market’s board.
But the key to its success is that people will keep coming back, even in July and August when the summer gets busy, he said.
“We have a great pavilion and a great space for it,” Williams said. “I think that will really help bring people out. Certainly it will early on. But keeping up that momentum is going to be the key.”
The market’s first year will be a learning experience for the market’s entire board, giving them the experience they need to help the market evolve and grow, Wallace said.
But volunteers will be needed to guarantee its long term success.
“This is something for our community and we all need to be willing to step up and volunteer and keep up the actual operations of the market,” she said. “That will be important over time.”
There are many factors that have to come together to make the project a success. But Wallace said she’s confident that the pieces are there and the time is right.
“I think when my dad started this and was developing this, the community wasn’t ready yet,” she said. “But now it’s a concept whose day is here.”