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Cincinnati's Market Sees Success As A Nonprofit. Will It Work In Cleveland?

Rain keeps away outdoor beer drinkers at Findlay Market's biergarten. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]
the exterior of Cincinnati's Findlay Market

One of the most often-posed questions from both vendors and customers about the future of Cleveland's West Side Market, has been about site management.

Instead of the City of Cleveland they ask, should operations be converted to a dedicated nonprofit, focused solely on the market’s improvement and success?

There is an example of the impact of just such a change. It happened 17 years ago, in Cincinnati.

To Market, To Market...

An electronic bell chimes from a clock tower at 9:00 a.m. every morning but Mondays — signaling the opening of a building that has stood the test of modernization, growth, economic downturns, and shifting demographics – since 1855.

Cincinnati was once a town with nine public food markets — open air, citywide and competitive.

The one that remains sprang from a land donation to the city by the estate of the man whose name it bears, Gen. James Findlay. He built his first store in 1793 and later became the Queen City’s Mayor.

“The market has been an anchor for the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood now for a century and a half. And it has always been a gathering place, always been a place about food and people and cultures and coming together and continues to be that today,” said Joe Hansbauer, CEO of the Corporation for Findlay Market.

Findlay Market is the neighborhoods’ largest employer and the place of business for more than 40 full time merchants, 40 farmers and more than 70 part-time or seasonal vendors.

Historic Findlay Market connects farmers, producers, sellers and customers in a diverse public space. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

Cincinnati "appreciates very well the Findlay Market," Hansbauer said. "But I think perhaps is maybe not even aware of the kind of the treasure that we do have here, having a market that has never ceased operation and has continued to kind of plug along through change after change after change, both inside the market and outside in the neighborhood."

Findaly Market CEO Joe Hansbauer. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

The corporation that operates Findlay Market formed in 2003, as the historic and unconventionally-built cast- and wrought-iron structure was undergoing renovation, eight years after the city introduced the Findlay Market Revitalization Plan.

Part of the agreement for the city, state and federal dollars that financed the deal required private management once initial renovation work was completed.

The market's wrought-iron roof from 1855 stands the test of time. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

The City of Cincinnati — unlike Cleveland — accepted the 'hands off approach,' allowing the new nonprofit corporation to manage, develop and support not only the market building itself, but also a surrounding neighborhood of shops, refurbished apartment buildings, arthouses, microbreweries and startups, collectively called the Findlay Market District.

"The change to nonprofit management has undoubtedly been a success," said Mary Stagaman, a corporation board member.

“One of the things that happened when we went from public to private management is we had much more active management of the market itself,” Stagaman said. “And that includes, of course, the merchants. So there were expectations that were placed upon them that in a sort of laissez faire management approach that we'd had previously, were just not there.”

Now, 17 years later, vibrant stores line three blocks of Race Street — three blocks of Elm Street and the market-adjacent blocks of Elder Street, which surround the building. Vendors are selling fresh produce, flowers, specialty items, foreign foods, seafood, gelato and salsa. There are even multiple pet food outlets.

Exterior shops line side streets for blocks around the market house. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

In one of those outlying sites is the store run by Josh Lillis and his dad. Lillis is a sixth-generation vendor, part of a family business that dates back to the opening of the market 160 years ago.

Eckerlin Meats, moved about 40 yards outside the main market building during the renovation in 2003 — continuing to serve every type meat from hand cut bacon, to sirloins, to its world-renowned goetta.

After educating the ideastream team about what may be the only meat product Cleveland doesn’t have (goetta, it turns out, is a meat-and-grain sausage or mush primarily composed of ground meat, pin-head oats and spices of German inspiration that's popular in the greater Cincinnati area – and shipped around the world), Lillis spoke about his meeting with a group of visiting West Side Market vendors who toured the Findlay Market and explained how the corporation supports individual businesses, "inside and outside" the central market house.

Eckerlin Meats has been operated by the same family for six generations over the course of 160 years. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

“They're actually operating the market, you know, not just a free freestanding shops or stores. It's kind of like a collaboration of all the different vendors, all manage under the same roof. But at the same time, separate,” he said. “So, you know, we still we all work together and we're conscious of, you know, who's doing what and what's going on around us.”

The buildings, costs and rents are managed by the corporation as well.

Recent changes have included turning utility costs over to individual owners, rather than the former flat rate. Vendors largely consider the increased costs fair, Lillis said, as the market district became “a destination.”

Maintaining A Market, Growing "A Destination"

And as "a destination," the vendors have flourished, seeing an annual attendance of more than 1.2 million visitors, with even a cold and rainy weekday bringing in 2,200 visitors.

"Everyone inside the building is an independent operator," Hansbauer explained. “They have full control over the spaces, the food that they are selling from them.”

The corporation maintains a strict limit on prepared foods for sale, not wanting Findlay to become a food court. It’s all about fresh food, some of which you don’t find just anywhere, including Harmony Plant Fare, which Hansbauer described as a vegan butcher.

“So they are all plant based, everything they make. They're all of their meats, their dips, their cheeses, everything is completely plant based and vegan,” he said.

What the corporation does increasingly seek is expansion opportunities.

Among ongoing developments are what they call pods small kitchens in a nearby building that are rentable to vendors, vendor wannabes and startups that have all the amenities a restaurant would, but for home chefs and even student cooks.

 “The most wonderful thing was having a place to where I can cook my food, I can storage my food. And also I found a place to sell my food, which was awesome", said Isis Arrieta-Dennis, one of the cooks who got started in the 15 by 20 ft. pod kitchens.

A native of Colombia who married a Cincinnati man, Arrieta-Dennis opened The Arepa Place in the Market District, bringing the corn-based staple of Colombia and Venezuela to Southwest Ohio.

Isis Arrieta-Dennis opened "The Arepa Place" to bring native Colombian Foods to Southwest Ohio. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

Isis Arrieta-Dennis and The Arepa Place.  [Isis Arrieta-Dennis]

“Findlay Market gave me the opportunity to show the Colombian food that I have to the public,” she said. “And Cincinnati in general is a diverse city. So being at Findlay Market is feeling like I was at the heart of the city, where I can find diversity — and that’s what I was looking for.”

Another opportunity the corporation that runs the market seized involves opening a teaching facility for the formerly incarcerated.

After searching the nation for a model, leaders eventually found it in their backyard: visiting Cleveland to see how Edwin’s Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Shaker Square operates and hoping to perhaps duplicate that model in Cincinnati.

The annual opening day parade for the Cincinnati Reds always begins at the Findlay Market. [Rick Jackson / ideastream]

A West Side Market Model?

What is there for Cleveland to learn from this corporation? Stagaman is a frequent Northeast Ohio visitor and is also a West Side Market fan.

“I think Cleveland has an asset right now that we didn't have, which is the growth in Ohio City. And the fact that it is becoming, once again, a very lively and vibrant neighborhood. We did it from the market out. And you can do it from the community in. And I think there's huge opportunity,” Stagaman said. “And the best thing I could say to people in Cleveland about this is there are cities all over the country who are building public markets because they know that they become vital centers and they create community vibrancy.”

As has happened Cincinnati — though Stagaman points out it took 25 years of work to reach the point last summer where  Newsweek Magazine named Findlay Market among the top 10 best food markets in the world — the only market in the United States to receive the honor.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.