Dec. 23 2014 12:00 AM

City Market loses revenue; vendors say lack of marketing killing business

Of the vendors who opened the new City Market in 2010, only three will remain in the New Year.

Nan Jasinowski is closing Sweet Seasons Orchard Saturday after fiveand-a-half years. The central shop space was an anchor with its fresh apple varieties and organic and specialty dried goods.

Jasinowski is among several vendors, past and present, who say the market is not made for success. The “palace” — Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority — is choking the life out of the market, they say, ignoring the free-fall in customers and responding to vendors with ambivalence.city_market1.jpg

“I think they want us out of here,” said Bonnie Falsetta, co-owner of Bob’s Market, one of longest standing vendors in the market. “Look how many have left.”

Indeed, the center of the market is a wide deserted aisle where customers once found Otto’s Chicken, massage therapy, the Sarge’s pulled pork sandwiches and more. Thursday, a week before Christmas, barely saw any foot traffic, Falsetta said, as she looked over a table full of poinsettia plants.

The 11,000-square-foot market is losing about $30,000 in revenue a year, according to minutes from LEPFA meetings.

The most recent minutes available on the city’s website from October continue the trend with a year-to-date loss of $15,276 compared to a loss of $9,161 by the same time in 2013.

Gus Pine, vice president of sales and marketing for LEPFA, said the market is “not as busy as we’d like to be.”

The market’s website says it has 20 vendor spaces available. A walkthrough shows 10 vendors, including the Waterfront Bar & Grille, which has expanded into more square footage as vendors have vacated over the years.

He said it isn’t fair to do a one-for-one comparison on the number of vendors because space is leased by the square foot.

But the fact is clear, compared to the April 2010 Facebook announcement of “operating at 100% capacity” and “a waiting list for our indoor market,” the new market has gotten old quickly.

The $1.79 million new City Market was rebuilt in 2010 and the former historic structure was razed to make way for the Gillespie Group Marketplace apartments, which recently opened. The move that downsized the facility was controversial and resisted by some vendors and fans of the old market. The market has never turned a profit and receives a subsidy from the city.

A photo of the vendors who opened the new market standing on the steps near the river serves as more of an obituary of merchants long gone: Soulful Earth Herbals, Otto’s Chicken, Alice’s Kitchen, Seif Foods, St. John’s Cider Mill, Shoua’s Asian Food.

‘We don’t want to just be rent collectors’ From the oldest to the newest, vendors are vocal about their discontent.

“The people in the palace need to promote the market,” said Janet Ozanich, owner of L&J Sales, which offers handmade soaps and lotion products. “Nobody knows we’re here.”city_market2.jpg

Ozanich leased space in June.

The signage is non-descript, small and easy to miss, they say. There is no print or broadcast message. And with the Marketplace multi-colored apartment building overshadowing the market from Cedar Street, it’s easy to drive right past unless you are a long-time customer.

Last Thursday LEPFA issued a press release “just in time for holiday shopping” promoting 22 new parking spaces, Michigan-made products and holiday hours.

“They need to actively pursue vendors,” Ozanich said. “With Nan leaving we lose a big anchor. That’s going to really hurt.”

Pine said there is a marketing plan and new initiatives to attract vendors and customers. He said LEPFA is surveying customers to find out what they want and where they get their information. They will know the survey results by the end of February.

“We are looking for ways to publicize the market,” he said. “We don’t want to just be rent collectors.”

He said they would be marketing to the residents of the Marketplace apartments.

Tenants have started moving into the upper floors. Pine and Lori Mellentine, the City Market manager, said they will be creating packets of information and coupons to welcome the new residents. There are even plans to hold a special welcome event for residents in January.

The Outfield also offers the potential for future nearby customers. The $11 million residential development by the Gillespie Group is under construction across the street at the baseball stadium.

Pine shared with City Pulse a new brochure being used to recruit vendors, titled “Grow your own business” that says “recent data shows an average of 330 patrons shop the City Market each week.”

The brochure reads: “The City Market administers general marketing frequently through press releases, social media and emails.city_market3.jpg

“We use social media big time, everyday we’re posting. And we use our website and newsletter,” said Mellentine.

Go to the City Market Facebook page however, and you’ll find a less-than-robust environment. It shows hit-or-miss posts, several per week, but nothing consistent or daily. The Twitter account (@ilovethebarn) — which was hard to find (who calls the market the barn?) — posts about one Tweet a day during its operating hours.

'We are looking for positive vendors'

The vendors the City Market is targeting to is unclear.

“We are looking for positive vendors to create solutions,” Pine said. “It doesn’t do any good to bring in a vendor who doesn’t fit in.”

At one point Pine said LEPFA wants to create a “co-op kind of environment.”

He said they would like to attract entrepreneurs, ready-to-eat meal places, vendors who appeal to millennials.

“The city continually supports the City Market and its vendors in every way that we can, said Randy Hannan, the mayor's executive assistant. It’s true that they’ve lost some vendors but the City Market is really a small business incubator so it’s not unusual or unexpected to see vacancies there.”

Jasinowski hugged one of her customers Friday in a long embraced. She had just opened a gift the woman had given her.

They’re going to miss each other.

But Jasinowski invited her to come to the goodbye party planned all day Dec. 30.

She wants to have a good time and remember the market fondly.

She’s one of the original vendors in the new market that opened in April 2010. She took a chance and joined the market before the old market was demolished, connecting with a Lansing institution.

“One by one they’re gone,” said Ozanich. “You look out and wonder where did the market go? They don’t care about us.”

Hannan said, “it’s a constantly evolving market. … Those who are left adapt to those changes and our marketing team.”