A well-regarded expert on food-based developments such as farmers- and open-air markets recently visited Hamilton to determine the feasibility of such a project in the city.
Ted Spitzer, of Market Ventures Inc., based in Portland, Maine, spent the evening of Tuesday evening, Feb. 6, plus all day Wednesday meeting with various people and examining the former railroad freight house at 1000 Maple Ave. His goal was to see how successful it might be to convert the long-vacant complex into a market similar to Cincinnati’s Findlay Market or Columbus’ North Market.
Jeff Gambrell, a member of the team seeking to create a market that also could include a theater space and other features, said Spitzer had some concerns about the project’s likelihood of success, but project advocates believe those possible hurdles can be overcome.
“The things he had reservations about were things our team had already considered,” Gambrell said.
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While he was in town, Spitzer also visited other possible locations for such a market, Gambrell said. The freight house remains the primary proposed site for such a market, however.
Spitzer’s concerns included:
The site’s visibility is not great. Although the property is two blocks south of High Street, it is nearly invisible from one of the city’s major roadways.
“At one point, the whole gang was standing at the corner of East Avenue and High Street, because he wanted to get a good visual from the main road to see whether the market was visible or not, because that’s a big part of the study,” Gambrell said. “The market needs to be visible for people passing through.”
On the other hand, “our team has plans of having a wooden water tower there with the Freight House Market logo,” Gambrell said. “That would make it visible from High Street.”
Train traffic is so high in Hamilton, which could deter visitors.
“The freight house is almost surrounded, surrounded in three parts, by tracks,” Gambrell said.
Jungle Jim’s International Market could offer too much competition. Although Spitzer is an expert on such markets, Gambrell said he was awestruck by Jungle Jim’s.
“He was blown away,” Gambrell said. “I don’t think he’s ever seen, in all his time, a market quite as large as that one. So he obviously has concerns about competition, but our team already knows that, and we feel they could actually complement each other.
“He checked out the building to get an idea of how much it would cost to fix the place up.”
Spitzer conducted one-hour sessions with various groups, including foodies, property owners and developers, neighborhood advocates, plus economic-development and planning officials, to see if there is a demand for such a facility.
Advocates of the market plan two public kick-off meetings on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Miami University Hamilton’s Wilks Conference Center, the first from 6-7 p.m., and the other from 7-8 p.m.
One possibility for an alternative site is a vacant site in the German Village neighborhood, across the Great Miami River from the proposed Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill mega-sports complex, Gambrell said.
“In terms of visibility, that was a good location because they’re thinking of building a portion (of Spooky Nook) as a hotel,” Gambrell said. “The people who would be looking out their rooms would see the market across the river.”
Another location was in northern Lindenwald, he said.
Spitzer worked with billionaire and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, to create the impressive “Downtown Market Grand Rapids,” which, in addition to innovative food-related companies, also has kitchen spaces used by area students and companies that rent space in the market.
Alfred Hall, a leader of the market, announced he hopes a facility could be built out for around $3 million, not including costs of purchasing the freight house.
Neil Cohen of Cohen Brothers told advocates of the project, “It is our company’s, and my particular, interest in trying to make something happen on this property. I completely appreciate the value it could have for the community.
“Whether it’s this project or any other project, we intend to contribute in any way we can, in some reasonable fashion to make sure the property is used somehow.”
Hall said he believes eventually something like the proposed market will happen, even if this current effort does not come to fruition, “and it will be a lot because of what the Cohen Brothers are doing, especially Neil.”
He added: “I believe this can be a citizen-based, greatly citizen-financed project that will have a dramatic effect on one of the most socially, economically depressed areas of our city, and I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition, it can bring “fresh, affordable food, and culture, to that site, so that we can make it a safe, warm community gathering place,” Hall said.