HARRISON – The Harrison City Market was the fulfillment of years of planning, grant writing and commitment, opening with great fanfare in October 2016. Six years later and having fallen short of its self-sufficiency requirement, City Council acted last fall to temporarily close a portion of the building. On Feb. 20, Council sought suggestions about uses for the market. Justin Cavanaugh, city manager/clerk, greeted those attending the public forum by requesting speakers limit their comments to three minutes and not to revisit a point already presented other than to expand upon that point. He also listed why the city had shut down the facility last fall, and what the challenges are going forward.
“We’re holding this meeting because Council/us as the City, made the decision to temporarily shut down the Farmer’s Market side of it,” he said. “We were losing a lot of money on that side, operating it, and it’s our responsibility to do what’s best with taxpayer funds. So, to be fiscally responsible we made the decision to temporarily close it until we could figure out how to best utilize this public asset.”
Cavanaugh reiterated the reason for the evening’s forum was to hear suggestions from the public on how best to utilize the market.
“Any suggestion is on the table,” he said. “We want it to be sustainable – we were dumping a lot of money into it and not really growing a lot of new businesses out of it as we’d like to. Ultimately, we want to do something that is either going to be beneficial to the Harrison area, and if we can’t think of something to do with it we may end up selling it.”
The first speaker was Wendy Heinig, and she noted the paucity of venues in Harrison where people could have parties, events or bring in organizations. She also noted that, in her experience, farmer’s markets are usually only on weekends, thus weekend and evening events could be balanced with when the market is not in use. She added that using the market for local farm goods/artisan wares only once per month could be more special/enticing to customers than hosting them every week.
“It’s an awesome space,” she said. “And I, personally, would do whatever we need to do to keep it part of a city venue, to build more on Harrison and our local businesses and such.”
Danny Wood spoke next, and she asked about monthly financially loss from overhead expenses, whether the facility is open or closed, and how much needs to come in to cover costs. Cavanaugh said it would require about $40,000-$50,000 annually.
He described closure of the market as having “put a hug Band-Aid on it,” and explained that between the revenue from CTE classroom/kitchen rental, anchor tenant Longer Table and Carol’s Apparel, all in the upper portion of the building, the city is still not breaking even. He also affirmed that staffing the facility had been the biggest expense.
Another attended expanded on the venue idea, conceding that it would be too small for a wedding, but possibly well sized for graduation open houses or bridal/baby showers.
It was brought up that selling the building could well mean the loss of a city business, and Cavanaugh agreed that was the last thing the city wanted, but that it is still obliged to “do what is right with taxpayer funds.”
“The city’s OK with losing some money on it,” he said. “If we’re able to justify it – if we’re bringing businesses to town. If we’re doing something worthwhile, it’s justifiable, but having a farmer’s market in there that we’re not seeing even 50 people a day coming through, that’ s not a good use of taxpayer funds at all.”
Another attendee who identified herself as “Carol” had been a vendor at the market spoke to the problem of lack of advertising/signage, relating that many times people came in and said they’d had no idea the market was there – or how to get into the building.
One attended spoke of attempting several times to rent space, but could not due to the area dedicated to the CTE class. She also noted that an old building in Clare is being divided into six vendor spaces with walls and signage, with a vendor cost of $400 per month rent. Her point was that divided space was more economically viable than renting an entire building, and she asked about the feasibility of installing divider walls to enable a more “permanent residence” for vendors. It was noted later in the building that partitioning would enable more pride of ownership among the vendors while allowing for better product display/presentation.
Eric Johnson, director of the CTE Culinary Arts Program, expressed his appreciation for having the space available, as well as his program’s “incredible” relationship with Longer Table. He informed that grant funds had been received to build CTE’s own facility at the Magnus Center and would class be moving out at some point in 2025.
“I think it’s something you should take into consideration as you move forward,” he said. “And we appreciate the community’s support, and we do know it has created a bind at times with the kids being in there during the day. But it makes a big impact on the community.”
Kati Mora, vice president of Middle Michigan Development Corp., was accompanied by Sarah Adkins, the Clare director. Mora spoke of a conversation she had with the director of the Small Business Development Center for the region, and his sentiment that the Harrison City Market is a highly valued resource to not only Harrison but the businesses across the area MMDC serves.
“We have had many businesses who want to start food establishments,” she said. “And this is a great place to be able to do that. Over the years we’ve seen some successful food-based businesses launched and land in either Clare County or nearby counties … It’s been a huge, huge asset for so many businesses looking to grow, and we’re really grateful it’s been right here in the City of Harrison.”
Mora also assured that whatever the city decides, MMDC will be there to help support it as a continuing asset to the community.
When asked whether the city had sought appraisal to determine the building’s real estate value, Cavanaugh said that had not been done because a commercial appraisal costs between $500-$3,500.
Another attendee described the market as “an amazing resource,” noting she and her family had lived a lot of places where they would have loved having access to this type of market and commercial kitchen. She suggested the city have an informational night where people could learn about the market: what it is and how the community can use it. She also pointed out the lack of actual produce at the market.
“We were having a very hard time getting vendors in there for produce,” Cavanaugh said. “Right up until August we struggled getting vegetables in there, then once the August crops started coming in, the girl that was running it was able to secure a few items. But getting people to come in there, and they come in once and see they don’t have anything, it kills the whole vibe of them coming back.”
One attendee noted many businesses struggled during the COVID pandemic and asked how the market was doing pre-COVID. Cavanaugh said 2019 was the market’s best year, and in that year still took a roughly $37,000 loss. He said the grant for staff had only covered 1.5 years, and further explained that if there had been no salary to pay in 2019, there would have been a $3,000 net.
One of the market’s previous vendors spoke of loving to be at the market, and how the vendors had really wanted it to succeed.
Cavanaugh said attendees were providing a lot of good feedback, that voicing their thoughts and concerns was truly appreciated and urged them to continue sharing their ideas.
Trisha Galloway of Longer Table spoke of the small-business incubation going on in the market, saying it is extremely helpful and a valuable resource for the community. She noted having referred to Cavanaugh several people who asked how to participate in the incubator.
“With the business incubator, I think you have a chance at getting more and more revenue,” she said. And while the CTE class does take up a portion of the incubator space, she noted it brought kids from five different school districts into Harrison where they spend money at local businesses.
“Not only that, they’re really great kids,” she said. “We have employed several kids from CTE, and I don’t think anyone wants to lose that relationship. But if there’s a way to give CTE a private use, and still bring in business incubation, I think that would be a really good solution.”
Cavanaugh asked for further thoughts on how to turn the facility into a business incubator, how partitioning might be used, etc. It was suggested that any spaces be equal in size and temporary walls be installed, possibly by the businesses. A reference was made to the former open concept high school and teachers’ use of bookshelves to partition off their classrooms. After the chuckling died down, it was suggested that having a bunch of small shops within the building “would be so awesome.” The gist was that it would be important to do something cohesive and visually appealing, far more so than having customers wonder which vendor belongs to which table, as it had been.
Galloway spoke again about how the market is a centralized location which could make it very good for partitioned businesses, but suggested an open space be retained for rental to accommodate decentralized bigger events.
“What we kind of lack in this town is a place where we can do that,” she said.
Cid Jones then spoke, addressing the great job the city did in preserving the historic Ford Building.
“In towns around, there isn’t one that looks like it,” she said. “And it would be very awesome if somehow we could keep the unique dynamics of at least the outer shell of it.”
Mayor Dan Sullivan pointed out that when Department of Public Works staff had to come to the market to fix problems it meant taking them away from other city tasks. An attendee then pointed out that the only way that would change is if the market were to be sold, and the point of the forum was to find a way to prevent that.
Sam Russell, DPW superintendent, explained that while it was initially part of the plan that the DPW would take care of such work, it also was intended that the market become self-sufficient within a period of years. And, as with any business, that would include its cost of maintenance and repairs.
When complaint was made that the city should have boosted the market’s advertising, Angela Kellogg, mayor pro tem, explained that there had been some early grant monies, some of which was used for advertising, but thereafter there was no advertising model to enable the market to advertise for itself.
“And, sometimes, it doesn’t matter how long something has been there or how you market it,” she said. “The Cleaver’s been on Main Street for 142 years, and invariably, several times a year someone will say ‘I had not idea what this was.’ Sometimes you throw your hands up and say what else can we do besides knock on doors?”
It was suggested that the Main Street display windows be used more, either to display product or signage, providing something that can be seen from the road.
“I agree with you that it was undermarketed, even from the standpoint where they could have done more press releases,” Kellogg said. “Right now, I think we’re talking about moving forward; what are we going to do?”
There was further discussion about how the building presents with nothing but a big garage door and a nondescript side entrance door, neither of which speaks to it containing vibrant, creative businesses. It also was reiterated that the vendors are obliged to promote their own products.
When Heinig was asked – if the huge market space was re-envisioned – what could the Chamber possibly see it used for, she restated the idea of sectioning for incubating small-business startups.
Consensus was found on the importance of bringing people to the building and those people knowing how to get into the building, whether it’s used year-round or in the summertime using the garage doors.
A gentleman who described himself as a recent transplant to the area, noted the many ideas which had been thrown around and pointed out that compromise could help point folks in the right direction. He stressed the importance of having someone managing the facility who is also knowledgeable in business incubation and business marketing, as well as securing advertising that will effectively bring people to those businesses. He also focused on the need to find someone who is a strong leader and knows what they’re doing in order to push the project to the end goal everyone wants – including a return on a $40,000 salary investment. His comments were so thorough and forward driven, Kellogg was inspired to ask if he was going to leave a resume.
Cavanaugh said there isn’t a strict deadline for when the city will make a decision about what to do with the market, but a Council workshop would be held. He did note that if the expanded incubator idea was pursued, he would need to research the cost for walls, etc.
So, there it is. People are talking, brainstorming and earnestly seeking a solution for retaining/honoring a bit of Harrison history while growing business capacity and enhancing the community. Stay tuned.
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