Sunday, November 28, 1999

Findlay Market's fight to the finish

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shoppers survey the historic market's produce.
| ZOOM |
        Hope is on hold at historic Findlay Market. The complex renovation planned for the Cincinnati landmark won't be finished until late 2001 — a year later than planned — in part because city officials haven't been able to raise enough private money to cover the project's growing scope and cost.

        City officials stress they remain committed to the project, and City Manager John Shirey plans to recommend a $1.5 million bridge loan and the creation of a nonprofit development authority to help keep the project on track.

        “It's one of those things that makes Cincinnati Cincinnati,” Mr. Shirey said of the market, adding he expects council to support his recommendations. “It adds character, and it defines the character of the city.”

        Many merchants at the 147-year-old market are anxious for the completion of the half-finished renovation and view it as their best chance of survival into the next century. Mr. Shirey sees the project a catalyst for further investment in Over-the-Rhine — a neighborhood many argue must be made stronger.

  The city's renovation and expansion of Findlay Market have grown in scope and cost since first proposed in 1995.
  The original plan was expected to cost $10 million. The new cost estimate is about $17.4 million.
  So far the city has:
  • $7.3 million in city money.
  • $2.98 million from the state.
  • $50,000 in federal money.
  • $406,000 in private money.
        Regular Findlay Market shoppers value the weekly ritual of squeezing through the market house aisle, surrounded by the smells of fresh fish and pork, ordering olives and tasting sausage samples on toothpicks.

        “It's the one place in the city where people of all backgrounds get together in one place and are on equal terms,” said Mary Stagaman of Oakley, a member of the Friends of Findlay advocacy group. “Plus, the food's great.”

        Across the country, more and more communities are creating new public markets or bringing them back from the near-dead, said Nancy Duncan Porter, former execu tive director for North Market in Columbus who consults on the development of such markets nationwide.

        Many cities view these markets as a way to bring visitors downtown and create a destination, Ms. Porter said.

        “Fortunately for Findlay Market, you really have a wonderful nucleus to work with,” she said. “I think a lot of communities would give their right arm to have what you have there.”

        Findlay Market caters to neighborhood shoppers who pay with food stamps and suburbanites who load up minivans with specialty foods, and merchants don't want that to change.

        City officials also see the market district as a place where new, small businesses that provide jobs for the neighborhood can grow and thrive.

        “Ultimately, it's about jobs. It's about small business owners,” said Paul Sebron, owner of the Mr. Pig restaurant near the market.

Plan expands
        The original renovation plan, unveiled in 1995, called for enlarging the market house, moving a play field to add parking and building an outdoor farmers market shed. The plan also called for rehabilitating several buildings for additional retail space and some housing.

        The city expected that to cost $10 million.

        But the plan has grown. Originally envisioned primarily as a way to update the facility and improve parking, the plan now includes programs such as the Food Ventures Center, a USDA-approved kitchen that business owners will be able to use to start or expand food businesses.

        The bigger project has meant a bigger price tag, with the total cost now pegged around $17.4 million.

        The city has raised about $10.8 million — most of it spent on work that started in 1997. The city added the parking, moved the play field, built the farmers market shed and fixed the store fronts.

        But work on the main market building, the heart of the project, has yet to begin.

        Shoppers such as David Cochran of Walton, Ky., appreciate what's been completed.

        “When I first started coming here, it was a little dreary,” he said as he plopped ham, bacon and sausage into a packed shopping bag. “But the restoration's been incredible.”

        Others, like Josephine Blakely of Corryville, a regular since 1955, aren't so sure. Ms. Blakely doesn't see the need for a renovation, saying she fears it will boost prices.

        “We like it like it is,” she said.

More work in March
        Work on the market house itself won't begin until March. That's partly because the city didn't have the money to keep the project on its original schedule and partly because starting before the holidays — one of the more recent timelines proposed — would have been a hardship for merchants.

        The city will renovate the market house one half at a time. When work starts on the first half, merchants will move into the renovated storefronts just north of the market house. Then they will move back into the finished half of the market house, and the other vendors will move into the storefronts.

        City officials have $2 million in the bank for the market house work, which will cost about $4.8 million.

        The city needs about $6.6 million more for the market house and other improvements, now scheduled to be finished in late 2001.

        The city is hoping for $1 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, and City Council will be asked next year to approve an additional $727,000, said city Market Manager Tom Jackson.

        If council approves the bridge loan, construction on the market house can begin in March. The city's Economic Development department will guarantee future funds to pay off the loan if fund-raising isn't successful.

        Mr. Jackson acknowledged the city hasn't been too successful in raising private money from foundations, corporations and people with an interest in seeing Findlay Market thrive.

        The city created the Advisory Committee of the Findlay Market Fund to try to raise private money and hired a consultant to advise the group. But the market has had to jockey for money with high-profile proj ects such as riverfront development and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        Firstar Corp. donated $125,000 to the project because the bank views Findlay Market as “a signature for the city” that could spur additional business growth, said Firstar spokesman Steve Dale.

        Many foundations and corporations, however, would rather give to an independent group instead of the city, which has a tax base to draw from, said Lawra Baumann, assistant vice president and foundation officer for Fifth Third Bank.

        That's one of the reasons city officials are pushing for the creation of the Findlay Market Development Authority, a nonprofit group that would manage and promote the market for the city.

        The original plan called for creating such a group after the renovation was complete. But if the city creates the development authority in March, when work on the market house is scheduled to start, the group will be able to help with fund-raising.

        Ms. Baumann said Fifth Third likely will contribute to the project, although a dollar amount hasn't been determined.

        “If we don't invest in the inner city and sustain the inner city and keep it as a vital place to be, then ultimately all the outer ring suburbs are going to suffer,” she said.

        While the creation of a development authority would help with fund-raising, it would be a major change for the market and the vendors.

        The city still would own the market, but the development authority would be in charge of such basics as promotions, keeping the market clean, collecting rent from vendors and raising money for capital improvements.

        Still, the change worries Jean Bender of Bender Meats, a 25-year veteran of the market. She said she likes the idea of being able to “hang on to the mother city.”

        Ultimately, the city wants the market to be self-sufficient, Mr. Jackson said. While merchants there pay to lease space, that money doesn't cover Mr. Jackson's salary or the money the city spends on trash collec tion or other basic services, he said.

        The idea of self-sufficiency is scary for some merchants, but Mr. Jackson said it would give them more control over their businesses.

A unique market
        Columbus' North Market and many public markets across the country are run by private, nonprofit development authorities, said Ms. Porter, the public market consultant.

        Unlike the Columbus market, Findlay Market sits in what is still a primarily residential neighborhood. Many markets are in industrial districts or near sports arenas, Ms. Porter said.

        Findlay Market's surroundings make its renovation all the more complex, she said, because the city must balance the needs of the neighborhood with the desire to create a place that people want to visit.

        In Over-the-Rhine, persistent poverty surrounds some of Cincinnati's most treasured landmarks. About 80 percent of the neighborhood's households have annual incomes lower than $15,000, according to Claritas Inc., a demographics research company based in Virginia.

        Converting Findlay Market into a yuppies-only destination wouldn't meet the needs of those residents, and the city's top goals for the project are aimed at the neighborhood.

        The goals include:

        • Increasing entrepreneurial opportunities for local residents, especially women and minorities.

        • Increasing job opportunities for local residents.

        • Improving economic conditions in the surrounding neighborhood.

        Many longtime merchants think this latest, half-finished plan will breathe new life into a market first born last century.

        “I truly think that for a small food business, when this thing is done, this is going to be the place to be in Cincinnati,” said Mike Kroeger, one of the “Sausage Brothers” behind Kroeger Meats, a Findlay Market staple since his father opened the business in 1972.

        Others argue the city must do more to manage the day-to-day operations of the market.

        Michael Luken, who has owned Luken's Poultry Fish & Seafood at Findlay Market since 1977, complained it's getting tougher and tougher to make a living at Findlay Market, even with the improvements the city has made.

        “They've Band-Aided a few things,” Mr. Luken said of the finished improvements. “The rest of the market — it's pretty much left in disaster.”

        Mr. Luken argued it will get even harder to make a living at Findlay Market once the market house renovation begins.

        City officials know merchants are concerned about the headaches the renovation will bring. But the point of the project is to make Findlay Market an even better place to do business.

        “The single core concept of the whole project is that people should be able to come in and take advantage of push-cart capitalism,” Mr. Jackson said.

        And city officials are banking that will lead to success for Findlay Market and Over-the-Rhine.

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