The best model for Cincinnati's future might be one of the most durable links to its past — Findlay Market. The city-owned market is one of those places where vague concepts such as diversity become tangible.
"What we say about the market is it's one place in Cincinnati where people of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds can come together," says Mary Stagaman, vice president of the board of trustees of the Corporation for Findlay Market.
"I think the quality of life in the city is defined by its diversity, and the market is the one place in the city where everyone feels comfortable," says Board President Buck Niehoff.
That might be a bit of an overstatement. Even Stagaman knows more than a few people fear going to the market is unsafe, a carryover from unrest in Over-the-Rhine earlier this year. She's invited those who tell her they feel uncomfortable to go shopping with her.
"I've never had a moments' pause about being at the market," Stagaman says.
Precisely because Findlay Market has been a fixture for almost 150 years, it's important to both the surrounding neighborhood and to the rest of Cincinnati.
"In many cities, public markets like this were victims of urban decay or victims of urban development," Stagaman says.
"Municipal markets like this one represent a tremendous community asset. It represents a unique shopping experience that certainly isn't duplicated by chain stores."
Findlay is the second oldest open-air public market in the country, according to City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who's lived in Over-the-Rhine since 1971. Improvements to the market are critical for the neighborhood and the vendors who do business there, he says.
The most recent renovation of the market occurred in the 1970s, Stagaman says. By 1995, the Market House was in disrepair and many storefronts around it had been abandoned and boarded up. That year, city council passed a business development plan that would allow for the renovation and expansion of the Market House, the centerpiece of the market. The plan called for the activation of storefronts near the market and mixed-income housing to be built around it.
Final funding from the federal government was slow in coming. Rioting in April caused approximately $175,000 worth of fire damage in a portion of the market needed for "swing space" for vendors relocated during renovations.
In June, Tom Jackson, the market manager, resigned, complaining the city provided inadequate resources for running the market.
But now the ambitious renovation under discussion since 1995 appears ready to begin. Repairs of riot damage should be completed this month. Greg Kathman is in place as market manager.
In October, a $5.7 million Market House expansion and street rehabilitation is slated to begin. The market renovations should be completed by spring 2003.
"We're going to do everything possible to get it done by then, if not sooner," Tarbell says. "The funding is there and everybody's anxious."
Funded by a combination of city, federal and state money, the expansion will nearly double the market's size in terms of square footage, according to Niehoff. Some vendors will move to temporary spaces during renovation.
"The renovations are being undertaken in such a way that the market will remain open continuously," he says.
When the renovations are complete, the city will turn over management of the market to the Corporation for Findlay Market, a nonprofit group.
Besides the physical improvements to the market and the areas surrounding it, part of the 1995 plan included the development of a Kitchen Incubator, which Niehoff says is now in place at Taft High School. Findlay Market vendors can rent time in the school's kitchen to prepare products for sale at the market.
But the market's future is inevitably tied to the neighborhood around it, according to Tarbell. He believes that in order for the market to thrive Over-the-Rhine must offer housing for all income levels, creating a base of people living near the market.
"The whole idea is it's tightly woven into a pedestrian neighborhood," he says. "It's either a freak show or it's an integral part of a healthy neighborhood." ©