Detroit and Buffalo will always be tied at the hip when it comes to Rustbelt bashing. The two cities have many similarities: manufacturing loss, thousands of abandoned homes and lots, poverty, and crime. We all know this already, and that is not what this piece is about, quite the opposite actually. In analyzing all of same factors that cause both cities to falter, I think it's important to also focus on possible solutions to get them back on their feet.
As a recent piece BR piece outlines, Detroit is a really cool place to visit
. I had a chance to discover this firsthand when I "road tripped" there in June. One thing that struck me about Detroit were the two markets that I got to check out during my visit. The two were very different in nature, but both offered insight as to how we can better use two markets here in Buffalo; The Broadway Market, and the Clinton-Bailey Farmers Market. Part 1 will focus on the Broadway Market, one of the country's oldest public markets.
The Broadway Markets challenges have been very well documented on this site, in the local news and the paper in Buffalo. While everyone seems to love the idea of the market, it seems as though no one is really sure how to ensure its sustainability. Under the current model it's basically a seasonal operation, with the weeks leading up to Easter drawing thousands of people from around WNY to make the annual trip down to the Eastside and reminisce. If you are one of the hearty souls who have visited the market after Easter, you see a very different scene. The majority of the market is empty; it's a large shell for a few year 'round vendors.
While in Michigan I had the opportunity to visit The Rustbelt Market
. Located in Ferndale, MI a few miles outside of Detroit, I found a model that challenged what the Broadway Market can be. Previously I had envisioned the traffic at the Broadway Market could be increased with events, bringing in radio stations, bands, and school groups for example. While at the Rustbelt Market I realized the market itself should be the draw. The flexible nature of the model used at the Rustbelt Market could be a viable option for implementation at the Broadway Market.
The Rustbelt Market labels itself on its website as "a true living market. Essentially, we have dusted off a 7,000 year old business model and put some spit and polish on it." They are providing an affordable brick and mortar outlet for small or fledgling retailers and artists to sell their products. Think Allentown Art Festival as an indoor venue, we all know the crowds that the Art Fest brings every summer. The goods that I browsed ranged from photographs of Detroit and vintage apparel, to wine flavored lip balm and even a local brewery.
Many of the vendors that I spoke with at the Rustbelt Market had an online presence in addition to their stand. They appreciated the vehicle to have a physical space without the commitment of a lease or the cost of building out a space. Some of the vendors have other jobs, but a few owners that I spoke with, such as "Jerry Shirts", were living off a website and sales from the market.
The goods at the Rustbelt Market often had a Michigan connection. These vendors are screened and are not just reselling packaged goods that are available anywhere. I find this aspect as important a concept as the market itself, the multiplying effects of keeping your dollar in the local economy has been well documented.
Each vendor is responsible for collecting payment from customers independently and most were embracing the various smart phone credit card processing setups, or accepting cash. You could tell from speaking with them that the screening process had worked. Everyone was running a viable business with unique ideas, this was not a spiced up garage sale.
So why do this? And how does this strategy work at Buffalo Broadway market?
For starters, it would work without the current vendors needing to disrupt their businesses. The Rustbelt Market is 15,000 sqft, while the Broadway Market is a hulking 90,000 sqft. New vendors can be added to the front of the market, which is usually pretty barren. Even if it was twice as successful as the Rustbelt Market there would still be ample space for the existing butchers, diner, and retailers. I am not proposing that the Broadway Market completely abandoned their meat and produce roots. I think that revising the model could augment the business to keep that tradition alive instead of quietly continuing to fade.
The space is already there! The City of Buffalo is maintaining the Broadway Market regardless of whether it is full or largely vacant. Aside from some additional administrative work on the part of the market staff to review vendors and create and manage price structure, the rest of the overhead is already accounted for. The market needs to start looking at the vacant space in the market as an opportunity cost. For example, the lights are always on throughout the whole space. Why not let vendors set up a temporary space for $60 even if it's just on the weekend? Every day paying to light an empty space is an opportunity cost never to be recouped. Like an empty seat on a flight, once that plane takes off you can never realize revenue for that seat.
We have seen a market for this. As I stated before, we all marvel at the crowds at the local festivals. The Saturday Artisan Market at the Wharf has drawn visitors to Canalside. This is not to compete with those entities, it's to compliment them. The festivals are just that, a few one offs a year. Since the Wharf is a temporary setup, it gives vendors little opportunity to establish much outside of a tent and folding table. Some of the well-established vendors at the Rustbelt Market have put a lot of time and effort into their spaces to make it their own. I also don't think the Wharf would be a hospitable site for those vendors a large portion of the year, while the Broadway Market offers a location viable throughout all seasons.
It would be a huge omission for me to not address the neighborhood while writing about the Broadway Market. Broadway-Fillmore is a distressed area that many people try to speed through or avoid all together. There have been those that suggest moving the Market downtown a good solution. This technique of avoidance hasn't seemed to help us thus far as a city or a region. At this point it would be difficult to save every dilapidated house dotting this neighborhood, taking into account its current state. However, I think we have a responsibility to identify anchors that will be catalysts for neighborhoods in the future that many believe don't have one. The Broadway Market is one of those anchors and deserves to be fought for.
While the neighborhood around the market struggles for now, I think the oft-maligned parking it has is a strength. Most visitors to the Market, should this strategy be adopted, would not be walking. The parking lot is secure and onsite. While trying to establish a viable entity in one of the most distressed areas in the region the onsite parking makes safety and the perception of safety manageable.
I know that the will to keep the Broadway Market is alive and well. You can feel it each Easter, or in the sadness that creeps in when a conversation shifts to its former glory. The question is can we capture that will and forge a new direction for the old market in a changing, global, and 'online' world.