Madison's Public Market Progress
The identification of three possible sites for the city's public market is a step in the right direction
"This new market has the potential to transform a neighborhood, serve an entire region and be a focal point for an urban food system and economy as unique as any in the country."
The journey toward what now looks like the inevitable creation of a public market has so many of the traits by which Madison defines itself: decades of discussion, multiple studies, recommendations embraced then rejected, public input, and then more public input when the original public input is no longer relevant.
Of course the ultimate justification for our unique process of public decision-making is “getting it right.”
And while there is much work to be done and hugely important decisions to be made, the identification of three possible locations for Madison’s Public Market appears to bring us closer to getting it right. We hope.
We’ll not revisit the history of the public market discussion other than to say we thought it was a good idea twenty years ago and that it should be at the site of the 1911 Madison public market at East Mifflin and Blount streets.
Much has changed since then (including our minds once or twice), not the least of which is the development of a twenty-first-century food system that must now be accommodated by a development as far reaching as a public market/market district. And to be clear, we think the recommendation by the Project for Public Spaces, the New York consulting group working with the city on the project, of a market district, as opposed to an open-air market, covered market or market hall, is absolutely the right way to go.
But we remember being in Mantova, Italy, ten years ago and hearing the concerns of folks there that a simple farmers’ market was having a negative impact on the small bakeries, butcher shops and produce markets that formed the backbone of a local food system that was integral to the community it served. It gave us pause, and still does.
The Madison Public Market Business Plan appears to recognize this and other possible challenges unique to Madison. No surprise perhaps given the usual quality of work the Project for Public Spaces delivers. The city was smart to contract with them. For example we appreciate the report’s recognition of “the City’s beloved farmers markets.” And there are a lot of other aspects to the report we liked and found encouraging as well.
The level of vendor interest was reassuring, as was the size and breadth of customer interest. We were pleased to see data supporting the finding of the city of Madison as “a local food Mecca that pervades the food economy.” We thought the report’s findings of growing interest in specialty and ethnic foods, lower income shoppers’ interests in purchasing local foods and a recognition of the strong social concerns regarding food purchasing and the “triple bottom line” of business profits, social justice and the environment were sensitive and appropriate.
But we also respect the challenges in the report, challenges that the consultants and the folks we know working on this issue take seriously.
How does a public market complement, and not conflict with, the many other food related “projects, businesses, and traditions,” found in this “local food Mecca?” Can it truly be inclusive? And, of course, how does it accommodate the ephemeral nature of agriculture in our area, i.e., winter?
And of course, where does it go.
In June, the Madison Local Food Committee passed a motion identifying three potential locations for the market: the Park Street Corridor near the intersection of Wingra Drive, the East Washington Avenue Corridor near the intersection of 1st Street, and the Northside Town Center Shopping Center. There are those who dream that someday there will be markets in all three locations. Could be. But getting this first one right is going to be very important.
This new market has the potential to transform a neighborhood, serve an entire region and be a focal point for an urban food system and economy as unique as any in the country, as long as we continue to be thoughtful, creative and flexible.
If we get this right, we will have created a genuine article.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.