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Food, Conviviality and Commerce

By Dan Carmody

Since 1891, Eastern Market has served two key functions in the city of Detroit. It has been the center for local agriculture and food systems, and a place where Detroit residents and businesses enjoy easy access to the bounty of Michigan harvests.

The district around the market hosts nearly 80 food businesses that benefit from being in close proximity to each other. This cluster of food businesses is an important employment center in the city and much of our work today at Eastern Market Corporation (the nonprofit that manages the market on behalf of the city of Detroit) is around incubating new food businesses.

Recently we awarded 18 mini-grants to food vendors at the market and urban farmers within the city to help them grow their businesses. In two rounds of mini-grants this year we were able to invest $50,000 to support small food businesses. We are excited about the potential of these businesses to fortify the local economy and are thankful to the Charter One Foundation for providing funding for this program.

Sometimes overlooked, however, is the role of the market as a place of civic engagement. It is a place where community gathers. This convening function is almost as important as the market’s role as a food hub. People of all ages, races, occupations and lifestyles visit the market and enjoy each other. People tend to leave the market feeling a bit better than when they came. As many as 40,000 on Saturdays and 4,000 on Tuesdays buy food and interact with each other — one big celebration of city living.

Eastern Market seeks to extend the celebration by extending the days the market is in use and the kinds of events hosted at the market. In the past two weeks alone the market has hosted its retail markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays, its wholesale market in the early weekday morning hours, tailgating during Lions’ home games, a civic reunion hosted by Born and Raised Detroit, a fashion show as part of Detroit Design Week, a car show and the annual dinner of the Detroit Pastoral Alliance.

While use of the market has increased we are evaluating several new events at Eastern Market that may debut in 2013.

The Tuesday Market has become a neighborhood scaled market that contrasts with the more sprawling Saturday Market. We intend to continue improving it from year to year so the Tuesday Market will be increasingly paired with fitness activities and become more focused on healthy living with good food in Shed 2 and nutrition activities and fitness classes in Shed 3.

We have also begun planning a Thursday Night Market that will be more about food and fun. Running from 4-10 p.m. it will feature more prepared foods and activities such as roller skating and free movies. Like the Tuesday Market it will be of modest scale filling one or two sheds as opposed to Saturday Market’s five sheds.

Much thought is also given to developing a Sunday Market that would be to the extent possible, the opposite of the Saturday Market. If the Saturday Market is 85 percent food and 15 percent other, the Sunday Market will be 85 percent other and 15 percent food.

“Other” is a combination of things we celebrate as Detroiters. Two sheds will be filled with Detroit-made arts and crafts, antiques, collectibles and flea market items. Shed 5, with its soon-to-be completed Community Kitchen, will host a signature Sunday Brunch featuring the best of local foods and spiritual music from local faith-based groups. Lastly, the outdoor Sheds 4 and 6 will host area car, truck, tractor and motorcycle clubs showcasing their prized possessions.

Utilizing the market for the sale of non-food items is important for the local economy. We have expanded the number of participants in our Artisan Village operations over the last few years and look forward to another major expansion next year when we complete the expansion of a public plaza area in front of Shed 5. Next year we will also begin construction of streetscape projects among which are plans to create a promenade through the large parking lot by the Fisher Freeway to accommodate more merchandise vendors.

While Eastern Market Corporation is highly focused on leveraging Eastern Market as a way to create more food sector jobs and improve Detroiter’s access to healthy foods, we are also committed to utilizing our role as a community gathering place to increase non-food entrepreneurial opportunities to sell merchandize as well as food.

The coming year promises to be a year of growth for Eastern Market. If you have any ideas to grow the market, I would love to hear from you.

Dan Carmody is the president of Eastern Market. Contact him at dcarmody@detroiteasternmarket.com

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