With Proposed Muskegon Farmers Market Move, Access is Hot Topic

While its subject matter initially focused on economic benefits, a meeting Monday night on the possible relocation of the Muskegon Farmers Market evolved into discussions about accessibility.

The meeting was the first in a series of community meetings on the plan, which will be privately funded and was first officially unveiled at a city commission meeting last month.   A group consisting of Muskegon’s Downtown Development Corporation, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce as well as private donors proposed the plan.

Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce was present at the meeting as well as Steve Novak from T4, the design firm behind the visual concepts for the new market. Renae Hesselink, a member of a newly formed city advisory council on the project, moderated the discussion. Questions from the audience were received ahead of time on cards, with more coming after all cards were read.

The parcel of land in question resides in a space between Terrace, Western and Morris Avenues, in uniquely shaped parcel of land that doesn’t follow the grid orientation of much of the rest of Western Avenue. A short spur officially called Market Street runs on a curve through the middle of the parcel of land.

Larsen began Monday’s meeting with a review of the plan’s features.

The market will have electricity for vendors to heat, refrigerate or power other devices. These will have lighting, which Larsen indicated would allow for improved early morning setup as well as the possibility for evening events.

Stalls will be 2 feet wider and 3 feet deeper. Rooflines are further out, and there is a gutter system.  Composite materials would be used to avoid cracking and peeling, along with steel construction to hold up against wind.  Awnings connecting the two segments of stalls across Market Street would allow people to stay under a roof while walking all segments of the market during rain.

On the west end of the property would be a small cluster of buildings, which could function as an indoor market, and a “community kitchen”.  The community kitchen could be used to teach about food and cooking as well as a commercial kitchen for vendors to serve outside at the market.

Among her comments, Larsen hopes that the relocation of the market would spur three kinds of development: residential, retail and tourism. When those reach a “critical mass”, according to Larsen, other businesses would fill in.

“We hope this project is a catalyst to other projects,” said Larsen. “The numbers aren’t there right now [for a grocery store].”

When asked what vendors think, Larsen cited concerns previously voiced by vendors in when past attempts at moving the market were made:

“Vendors are really concerned about the construction of the market. ‘How do trucks get in? How do trucks get out?’”

One vendor present at the meeting spoke to say he feared that festivals and the market may conflict for parking, and the market would get shut out of parking in its best months.  Larsen stated that the City of Muskegon would be giving preference to parking for the farmers market over any festival in town.

As for customer access, one commenter at the meeting suggested that the move downtown could potentially improve access to those who couldn’t drive, because the downtown site is close to bus access as well as other offices such as Social Security and banks.

One of the hottest issues coming out of the initial announcement was the amount of parking available on and around the site.  Larsen cited availability for 75 spaces, mostly for vendors, right on the spot. Larsen urged the audience to think outside the idea of one large lot for parking, instead gesturing on a map to available spaces along Western, Jefferson, Clay, and Morris Avenues, as well as Terrace and First Street within a certain perimeter.

Larsen: “What makes it vibrant is there’s people walking all around.”

Larsen addressed the availability of the Baker College lot, which is directly across Western Avenue from the land in question, and is bordered by Jefferson, Clay and Terrace on the other three sides. Larsen specifically stated that the lot was not owned by the city but would be available during market times for public use.

Side discussions have taken place around the proposal before today, including the role the market plays for the economically challenged inner-city neighborhoods, as well as discussions of racial divides..

A commenter present at the meeting said that youth, especially young black males, may be harassed if they want to come down and be a part of the new market. The concern was not immediately addressed by any of the panelists or moderator, though the commenter later stated that all parts of the city needed to come together and find a way to make it work for everyone.

Muskegon resident Kellen Reid expressed concerns that the market’s relocation might make things worse for nearby neighborhoods who have limited access to fresh food.  Larsen answered Reid’s comment as being one needing further discussion.

Another question asked if the improvements to the market would lead vendors to raise prices at the market. Larsen noted that since donors would be providing the cost of the development, the city would not go into debt for the project. She did admit that the city may see higher utility and operation costs, but the market is projected to receive more revenue. Larsen considered it a “wash”.

As mentioned at the previous unveiling of the plan, no design decisions are yet finalized.   Partway through the meeting, Novak backed up Larsen’s comments on the fluidity of the design:

“This thing has already been redesigned seven times.”

One audience member challenged the architect and other committee members to think less “provincially” and more globally when it came to its design.

“This is a baseline,” said Novak.  “That’s why we’re here tonight.”

Two more meetings are planned for this week: One Tuesday night at 6:30 at First Congregational Church, intended for residents of the Jackson Hill and McLaughlin neighborhoods surrounding the market, and one Wednesday with vendors of the Muskegon Farmers Market.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst