Local grassroots enthusiasm ensures its imminent arrival
Ian Anderson | Downtown News
On Aug. 8th, Dale Steele and Catt Fields White quietly launched a project on the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter.com. Its stated purpose: “Creating the world’s best new public market right here in San Diego.”
They uploaded a video detailing their ambitious plan to convert two acres of industrial space into an
open bazaar inspired by such celebrated marketplaces as Barcelona’s La Boqueria, and Pike’s Place in Seattle. It would feature scores of independent vendors selling fresh produce, artisan foods, locally-crafted goods and more.
To accomplish this, White and Steele needed to raise a whopping $92,244 in sixteen days. They were, in effect, asking the community whether it wanted such a market in our town.
The community answered. When their Kickstarter campaign closed on Aug. 24th, it had received contributions totaling $146,122, ensuring that the idea of San Diego Public Market will soon be a reality.
Quite soon, as it turns out.
This round of financing was just the latest chapter in a process that has been underway for years. A location has already been leased in Barrio Logan, and work has begun to bring the space up to code. The city permit process is underway, and if everything goes according to schedule, the Public Market will officially be open for business on Wednesday, Sept. 12th, with an inaugural farmer’s market.
Taking over a former boiler factory at 1735 National Ave., the farmers’ market will run from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Sunday and Wednesday, though it may not immediately look like a top shopping destination.
The property has been sitting vacant, only a few years removed from its original purpose, and at first glance the hard edges, overhead cranes and residual signs warning guests against hazardous materials and high temperatures do not invite a mental association with fresh produce or artisan foods.
However, co-founder Steele sees 92,000 sq. ft. of raw potential. The inspiring force behind the project, she has been attempting to create a public market in San Diego for more than twelve years. Earlier efforts involved a property in Liberty Station and at the old Police Headquarters (which instead is now slated to open next year as a sort of extension of Seaport Village).
While red tape and the recession conspired to keep Steele from realizing her vision, things really got rolling again two years ago when she met White, who manages several weekly farmers’ markets in San Diego, including Little Italy’s Saturday Mercato, the county’s largest. White’s relationship with local farmers and other vendors uniquely qualifies her to cope with some of the complexities of this undertaking, beginning with finding the right balance of merchants – a must if the partners are going to lure shoppers to Barrio Logan, which White likens to a “food desert.”
Many of said shoppers are already accustomed to finding local fare at their neighborhood markets.
However, Brian Beevers, manager of weekly markets in Point Loma and Golden Hill, said that farmers’ market attendees only comprise five percent or less of the overall population. The rest rely on supermarkets, which usually import fruit and vegetables from southern Mexico and places even further away such as Chile.
Consumers often believe they can save money this way, whereas Beevers claims they can “average a dollar cheaper per pound” buying local.
Despite its potential to eat into his own customer base, Beevers supports the idea of a Public Market, provided it helps lure a greater market share away from grocery chains. White thinks it will, and cites San Diego’s year round growing season as a great advantage in this regard. Given the opportunity, she said, people will come to realize they “don’t have to buy tomatoes that have been in a cooler for nine months,” and therefore embrace the local distribution model.
The growing popularity of weekly markets bears this out: “We’ve increased from 28 farmers’ markets in 2008 to 57 now in San Diego county,” White said. “All of them are busy, because the number of shoppers has increased exponentially.”
Of course, supermarkets have much greater resources to counter this movement. In fact, mega retailer WalMart has been making progress on its controversial plan to open a new budget grocery store just a few blocks away form the Public Market site – ironically, at the site of the old San Diego Farmers’ Market building.
With Petco Park and the New Central Library just around the corner, the newly revitalized area will likely attract new interest from around the city, and the two venues will be going head-to-head trying to lure customers; fresh and local vs. cheap and imported.
However, the Public Market already has a leg up when it comes to populist zeitgeist. Whereas the WalMart store has met with vocal opposition, the Kickstarter campaign itself has made the arrival of a Public Market a heralded event. Links to White and Steele’s project page went viral almost immediately, shared by foodies and “locovores” through their preferred social media outlets.
Local press also embraced the project with a number of positive opinion pieces. Perhaps more telling than the actual dollar amount raised on the site were the number of contributors. Nearly 1,400 individuals pledged anywhere from one to 10,000 dollars apiece, and dozens more added comments to the page volunteering their time and labor. Meanwhile, more than 6,000 have opted to “Like” the market’s Facebook page, with that number rising as word continues to spread.
With all this support adding to White and Steele’s personal investments, The San Diego Public Market, backed entirely from private financing, will be the first market of its kind in the United States to do so.
Phase one will begin the biweekly farmers’ market, initially housed in a vast 22,000 square foot warehouse at the front of the property.
The extra money raised on Kickstarter gives White and Steele a head start on refurbishing the other 70,000 square feet of office, industrial and open space. This work will be performed with the support of Steele’s husband and business partner Mark, a prominent local architect and former chairman of the San Diego Planning Commission.
Plans include construction of a commercial kitchen that will allow vendors to prepare food on site, and offer cooking classes for kids as well as adults. An outdoor area with a view of the Coronado Bridge may act as a food truck hub. Four adjacent cottages will be converted for use as art galleries, yoga studios and/or cafés. An Urban Farm Lab will offer classes on such topics as seasonal planting and composting.
A second, larger warehouse will open in the spring, allowing some local vendors to set-up shop for extended hours in permanent stalls. Talks are also underway to bring in local artisans who would make pottery, bread, cheese and cured meats on site, and a number of top local chefs have expressed interest in bringing their culinary talents into the fold.
Though logistics and municipal code both limit how fresh meat and fish may be sold at street markets, refrigeration capabilities will eventually be installed to allow for a more direct and immediate marketing of locally sourced perishable goods.
Ultimately, the San Diego Public Market will give residents a centralized location to find a variety of fresh, locally produced food, six days a week. More than that, White and Steele hope it will create a vibrant culture, attracting tourism and allowing for an exchange of efforts and ideas among the local food community.
If the online response to their efforts is any indication, this exchange may already have begun.
Ian Anderson is an author and reporter, who has published books about e-commerce and the environment, and written articles on food, music, community events and politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
** Editor’s Note: In the printed version of this article in the September 2012 San Diego Downtown News (Volume 13, Issue 9), the story stated the new Public Market space will have its first Farmers’ Market on Wed., Sept. 5. That inaugural event will actually happen on Wed., Sept 12, as the story above indicates. We regret the error. **