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San Diego Public Market in holding pattern after shutdown

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Ask farmers market veteran Catt White whether her vision for the San Diego Public Market is a concept of the past, and she’ll say rather confidently that it’s not.

After raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, she and business partner Dale Steele opened their newly leased and transformed space in the old Frasers Boiler building in Barrio Logan for a twice-per-week farmers market. It was supposed to be just a lead-in to larger offerings that would eventually make the space live up to its name as a public market, a notably different type of operation that offers a permanent, daily presence.

Already locked into a 10-year lease on the property, White and Steele have had to re-think their strategy during the last couple of months, as the 1-year-old farmers market never bloomed the way they anticipated and was recently shuttered. The space is still being made available for certain special events, but it’s not known when or if it will make a comeback.

White indicates it’s just a matter of time, as she intends to get the place going again. She is negotiating right now with interested parties to help fund a Public Market debut, version 2.0. She didn’t wish to name those she’s in negotiations with, but hopes to have an idea of what she has to work with soon.

“I probably would have thought that Barrio Logan was pretty mature for a market, without the overall activity for the plans on the permanent site,” White said. “We probably jumped the gun a little bit on putting the farmers market before the construction could take place for the permanent market.”

“All new markets take awhile to build," White said, noting how her other operations have progressed.

Adding that in hindsight, the neighborhood wasn’t quite ready for the stand-alone farmers market on Sundays and Wednesdays, White said that when the permanent shops are open, it will “increase the critical mass there, but right now -- it’s the particular area of Barrio Logan that our building is located in.”

That “critical mass” just isn’t there right now, she said.

Bill Thaxton, senior vice president of the commercial real estate firm Flocke & Avoyer Commercial Real Estate, said that while he isn’t familiar with the San Diego Public Market specifically, there are a number of things to consider when a farmers market is opened.

“It does seem like there are more of these farmers markets popping up,” Thaxton said. “They really seem to be pretty successful.”

Despite the growing popularity of farmers markets, many factors could have contributed to San Diego Public Market not making the cut its first time around, he said. Their popularity itself could have even been a factor, although the locations of existing farmers markets leaves questions as to whether it was.

“I think there’s definitely opportunity for more to spring up -- it really comes down to the population density and the locations of existing farmers markets, and to some extent, grocery stores,” Thaxton said.

He said that a successful farmers market in Ocean Beach has been crowding out another in Point Loma -- drawing in customers from surrounding areas despite the closer alternative.

The Point Loma market may just be too close to compete with an established and well-liked choice like the one in Ocean Beach, he said. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as the case with what happened at the Public Market.

A few farmers markets already serve neighborhoods outside of Barrio Logan, but still near downtown San Diego -- like the Third Avenue Certified Farmers' Market in the Gaslamp District and Little Italy Mercado -- which Catt White also runs. But none are located in Barrio Logan itself.

“It should be a pretty good area for it, I would think,” Thaxton said.

He also said the population density of the neighborhood should be strong enough to support it. What he thinks may have gone awry was the way in which the market which was introduced.

“Based on that size, I’d think that they’d have to draw more than just the surrounding neighborhood, which is entirely possible,” Thaxton said.

Deciding to go with opening the farmers market prior to constructing the permanent public market was looked at as a neighborhood marketing tool of sorts by White and Steele. They thought it would be a good idea to let people see what the neighborhood looks like today, as one that is up-and-coming.

“There are some perceptions of Barrio Logan from many years past, where people aren’t sure about the area,” White said. “There was a thought that if we have a farmers market there, people could come down, they could get comfortable with the area, they could get a sense of what a great area it is.”

While acknowledging that old perceptions can be hard to break, she said it has been done before in her own neighborhood.

“I live in Little Italy, and 15 years ago, San Diegans didn’t go to Little Italy -- it was scary,” White said.

The type of transition in Little Italy that White speaks of -- which Thaxton said was more about that neighborhood changing to offer things people wanted, than people previously being scared of the neighborhood -- is what the situation could boil down to in Barrio Logan, he said.

“If you have enough reasons for people to go there … it ultimately becomes more of a reason for people to drive farther to come there,” Thaxton said. He added that the addition of permanent vendors -- such as a local microbrewery, as an example -- could spur something like that.

“I do think that she’s onto something, though, with having more of the permanent retailers -- retailers, restaurateurs, whatever the components are -- that there’s some permanent component that can sort of anchor that building,” Thaxton said.

Diane Moss, who runs Southeast San Diego Peoples Produce Certified Market in the Chollas View neighborhood, said experience has taught her that success can hinge on invited farmers trusting that their product will be sold.

“They have to know that when they come, they will sell most of what they bring,” Moss said.

“That can be a source of tension, if you will, if you want to keep the farmers. But you need to have that to have a farmers market.”

Many postings on social media sites like Twitter made it clear that people who had patronized the San Diego Public Market had noticed vendors disappearing for some time leading up to its closure.

Moss said she isn’t sure what went wrong at the San Diego Public Market, but she described White as one of the most experienced farmers market managers in the county. She noted that unlike her own and many other farmers markets, the San Diego Public Market didn’t accept payment by electronic benefits transfer or women, infants and children assistance -- commonly referred to simply as EBT and WIC.

Ruling out the ability of customers to use government-funded food assistance mechanisms like those may have played a role in a less-affluent community such as Barrio Logan, Moss said.

For now, San Diego Public Market is on stand-by, White said. She declined to make any specific predictions ahead of closing her ongoing negotiations, but indicated a definite intent to return.

When the San Diego Public Market’s plan to add permanent shops in its building comes to be, it will be “yet another reason for Barrio Logan to be a destination” for people from outside the neighborhood, White said.

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