July 26 2018 10:31 AM

Lansing City Market rolls to a stop after Labor Day

On a sunny Saturday this month, a popup farmers market with eight vendors drew about 160 people to Lansing’s downtown riverfront in three hours.

The location was ironic. The modest market, meant to promote the bounty of Lansing’s growing urban farm network, was held in front of the moribund Lansing City Market, long bereft of veggies and reaching the end of a sad arc.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said the building is expected to close “shortly after Labor Day.” The City Council ended the city’s subsidy of the market earlier this year.

The death spiral of fewer vendors and fewer visitors was so bad that that a few years ago, the city tried to rebrand the market as a “small business incubator.” Soon, nobody wanted to set up shop, even temporarily, in an empty warehouse with a bar and restaurant at one end.

In August 2016, the U.S. Agriculture Department pulled the market’s authorization to accept Bridge card food benefits because it was no longer a farmers market.

Jim Bingen consulted with developer Pat Gillespie in 2008, when the Lansing City Market moved from its old building a few hundred feet away to the new structure on the river. At the time, Bingen was a professor of community food and agriculture and farmer’s market expert at MSU. He now lives in Minneapolis.

“I remember talking with Gillespie as he was planning to invest in the new structure and pointing out that markets need population density, and that is still the case,” Bingen said. “I know there are more apartments and condos in downtown Lansing, but this is also the generation that started to have its food delivery through Amazon.”

Those who hanker for the Lansing City Market’s heyday have to go back before the 1980s and ‘90s, when changing urban demographics and the rise of big stores like Meijer were devastating urban markets everywhere.

“There’s something sad about this 100- year old institution flagging, but it was flagging before,” Allen Neighborhood Center Executive Director Joan Nelson said.

“This is not the first time the Lansing City Market has gone downhill,” Bingen agreed.

Even before the market moved to its final “pole barn” home, a visitor to the old building ran a gantlet of guilt-inducing stares from stoic, stool-warming farmers waiting for anyone to pick up a squash. The west wing of the H-shaped building was a dead zone of dusty crafts, where one vendor played perpetual Solitaire amid rows of plastic flowers.

Obviously, something had to be done, but in retrospect, the new market was a Hail Mary pass. The idea was to put up condos where the old market stood, thus wrapping the new market in a built-in customer base. But the new building, wedged between the condos and the river, was invisible to auto traffic, and the condos took longer than expected to build, in part because of the Great Recession, while vendors withered on the vine.

Karianne Martus, manager of the thriving Flint Farmers Market, visited the Lansing City Market before the Flint market made its move to a new building downtown in 2014.

“We knew, from crossover vendors, that Lansing was having problems,” Martus said. “We learned some lessons from Lansing, I’m sorry to say. We really took a lot of time before we ever moved on designing this space.”

Martus got an earful from Lansing vendors about nuts-and-bolts problems such as loading, trash and recycling, poorly located pipes and utilities. The new market, the vendors told Martus, was hastily planned and executed. The Flint market brought in experts from the Project for Public Spaces, including David O’Neal, designer of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, among the most successful in the country.

Visitor traffic has more than doubled since the Flint market moved downtown, from about 200,000 visitors a year to 550,000.

The Flint market gets no city subsidy, but it has major support from the nonprofit Uptown Reinvestment Corp., the C.S. and Ruth Mott foundations and other deep-pocketed sponsors. Lansing’s market never had that kind of help. Flint’s vendors also had decades of good will and community ties, a resource that has been irrevocably squandered in Lansing.

“The Flint and Grand Rapids markets are bustling, but they’re also very highly subsidized,” Mayor Andy Schor said. “We went from a four-day-a-week to a sevenday-a-week market, and it was not sustainable. The costs were too high, the vendors left and what did we end up with now? When I took office, we had a building with a bar, and voters were subsidizing it to the tune of $80,000.”

Schor wants voters to approve sale of the building, which sits on parkland, to a developer who will put it to use.

“I don’t want to have an empty building for a year, two years, a blight on the river,” Schor said. “I want to have that space re-activated.”

Schor mentioned a private market, a restaurant and a brewery as three possible options.

With a downtown grocery store in the works, a private market seems unlikely. Nelson wants to squash rumors that her team is thinking of “taking over” the City Market and throwing Allen Neighborhood Market fairy dust on it.

“We have zero interest,” Allen said. “I don’t know if it’s too late to try to resurrect a three-season, six-day-a-week city market. It feels to me like the energy and the interest is not there.”

The area is indeed rich in farmers markets, with the Allen Neighborhood Market on the east side, the South Side market, the Meridian Township market and a bustling enclosed market in Holt. In all, Nelson said, there are 25 farmers markets in mid-Michigan, and “hyperlocal” is the next big trend, not the other way around. The Lansing Urban Farm Project’s Lansing Grown project has begun to promote the dozen or so urban farms sprinkled throughout Lansing, especially in a 30-block flood-prone area of the east side.

Like a shoot growing from the stump of a dead tree, the Lansing Grown pop-up market will return Aug. 18, in front of the Lansing City Market.

It’s no Eastern Market or Pike’s Place, but it’s ours.

“Right now there’s a lot of momentum, energy and excitement about Lansing Grown,” Nelson said. “I expect the next pop-up market will have double the number of the last one.”

City Market Public Conversation

Mayor Andy Schor Andi Crawford, Dept. of Neighborhoods and Civic Engagement 6-8 p.m. Thursday, July 26 Lansing City Market 325 City Market Drive, Lansing