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Why we need to start talking honestly about the Downtown Market

Has the Downtown Market lived up to community expectations? Which expectations are being met- and which do we need to talk about honestly and get to work to improve for the better of everyone in our local food economy?

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The Downtown Market has now been a part of our Downtown neighborhood for two years. Has it lived up to expectations? Does anyone dare to measure what’s working and what’s not?

Though its capacity and location still provide it with enormous potential to be a hub of good food work in Grand Rapids, it is my hope and belief that more honest community conversations are absolutely necessary for us to capitalize on that potential.  

And the honest fact is, despite all of its potential, the Downtown Market has not met expectations.

I am not referring to the expectations from foodies, downtown development advocates or public officials interested in promoting economic growth. Though it likely hasn’t met those expectations either, it absolutely has not met the expectations for growers, local producers, small entrepreneurial start-ups, local food advocates and those seeking to construct a new agrifood economy. It has not met what’s needed for an economy based on place over profit, soil over concrete and human beings over consumers. On these accounts, it has been an abysmal failure.

In numerous conversations with local organizations, individuals and even some working at the Downtown Market, everyone says it- often in literal hushed tones. But few are comfortable to say it out loud.

So let’s just get it off our chest: the Downtown Market isn’t working.

That isn’t to say Tacos el Cunado and Love’s Ice Cream aren’t turning a profit - perhaps they are. The Downtown Market is in the middle of a metropolitan city of nearly one million people, situated in the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, in one of the most thriving cities in the Midwest.

But the Downtown Market still can’t figure out its identity. It doesn’t know what or how or who or why it exists.

When I was invited to tour the market before its completion, I remember walking through the greenhouse and asking, “So what exactly will this enormous greenhouse be used for?” My inquiry was motivated by experience as a businessperson, a farm program manager and an urban grower.

To my shock, the response was, “We don’t know. We’ll figure it out?” Reading between the lines, the answer was that no plan existed.

Millions were spent on a billboard of a greenhouse without a plan. The vast agrarian wisdom embedded in such a rich agrifood economy was ignored and forgotten because it was hard to imagine inviting growers and good food entrepreneurs to the table along with the developers, architects and designers. Any grower from one of the number of incredible farms in the area might have critiqued the soundness of the market as a business investment, but they were nowhere to be found at that table of developers and investors through that process.

Today the greenhouse is just one component of the Downtown Market that is veritable sea of ambiguity. It, like so many other portions of the market, vacillates between an underutilized event space and an overly-managed growing environment, desperately trying to capture the pulse of an increasingly disinterested public.

While the market has become a hotspot for weddings and other high-dollar events, its almost cloying gentrification and use of good food as a public messaging platform explicitly ignores local-food economic value. There is an enormous disparity between who it markets to and who its Heartside Neighbors are.

Where is the report - the actual report- highlighting the extent to which the Downtown Market has augmented the growth of a local-producer economy in Michigan? I’m not looking for an overall economic impact assessment, but rather one that acknowledges the economic disparity between development and agricultural production – the second of which is far more important for our survival as a people.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting The Plant in Chicago. A former meat-packing plant, The Plant is a hub of food innovation and entrepreneurship - replete with aquaponics production, a bakery, a brewery, a kombucha business, an outdoor urban farm and apiculture. The Plant has done it all by resurrecting an old building destined for the waste facility and breathing new life into it. It is what the Downtown Market desires to be, but can’t under the absurd economic assumptions that informed its development. While The Plant was acquired at 94,000 sf for approximately $5.14 per square foot (albeit needing some much-needed updates), the cost-prohibitive Downtown Market price tag of $164 per square foot for an overly spacious 138,000 square footage leaves little room for any activity that doesn’t immediately contribute to the organization’s bottom line.

Though the Downtown Market is a new building, it is already a dying breed. It needs new life breathed into it. As anyone who has ever grieved the loss of anything knows, new life can’t emerge until the preceding death is both recognized and honored.

I am 30 years old. I live in Midtown and have two young children. I love Grand Rapids and I have a tattoo of the state on my forearm. I have a master’s degree in community sustainability and food systems. For all intents and purposes, I should love everything about the Downtown Market. But I don’t. Not because of all of the aforementioned reasons - but mostly because it isn’t a warm invitation. It isn’t a place yet. In the same way the Rainforest Cafe isn’t an actual rainforest, the Downtown Market has the makings of thriving city market without the thing that actually creates a market: people.

But I want it to thrive. I want it to be a community gathering place. I believe we can get there.

So I’m asking for two things:

First, public recognition of its failure and shortsightedness. I’m not looking for an apology, but rather some acknowledgment that the vision was ill-developed and rooted in an quickly antiquated business model that ignores the rich socio-economic, intellectual and ecological capital that makes West Michigan so incredibly amazing. We need an acknowledgement that the Downtown Market was informed too heavily by utopian visions and not actual feasibility and intelligent analysis.

And secondly, a chance to start over. Whether it be debt forgiveness for the building to invite actual food entrepreneurs in, heavy subsidization to tip the economic scales in favor of the new food economy or perhaps a general christening of the space by rubbing some of the rich Jenison muck soils on the walls to eliminate the laboratory-esque sterility of the market, it is in desperate need of a new identity. In the seasons of nature, decaying flora and fauna are not lost forever. Instead they’re metabolized and then reconstructed into something beautiful and new. In the same way, I believe that though the Downtown Market is decaying, it still has a great capacity for growth. It just hasn’t evolved yet.

Grand Rapids is one of the most amazing Midwest cities I have had the rare privilege to live in. Its people are full of life, love, creativity and hard work. It is a cross-pollination of conservative and liberal, professionals and hipster, soul food and veganism, blue and white collar. And yet we are still working hard to find out what place truly means. I believe the Downtown Market provides us with an incredible platform to displace the old model, and with all of our diversity front and center, to step boldly into the new growth that awaits.

The Downtown Market needs an identity that sheds off the skin of disconnected and bourgeois elitism and celebrates the terroir of Michigan. It needs to become as accessible and inviting for those who use EBT cards as it is to those who can afford the po’boy sandwich that currently costs $16. It could become a veritable hub of classes on cooking, preserving, growing, teaching and gastronomical resiliency that is not informed by the excessive price tag, but rather one that forgives the poorly designed business strategy and practices the time-tested mantra: begin again.

Unlike many of my colleagues, who (only over beer and coffee - never in emails), will admit the colossal waste of space and resources of the Downtown Market along with a heavy and discouraged sigh, my hope has nowhere near run out.

This just means there is more good work to do. Let’s get started.

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