The Rochester Public Market is much more than a place to buy tomatoes the size of softballs; it's the social and cultural heart of the city. On a single Saturday in peak season, the market may get 25,000 to 35,000 visitors.
New programs and an $8.2 million renovation project will guarantee that the Public Market stays vital for years to come, says market manager James Farr.
The main purpose of the renovation project is to replace the winter shed — which houses the indoor vendors — and the restaurant kiosks adjacent to it.
The shed desperately needs updating, Farr says.
"It was never outfitted with drains and water and proper electric. It was all cobbled together," he says. "And it was built in kind of a 70's heavy-concrete style that was kind of foreboding; it didn't invite people in there. The new building is going to be a 20-foot-high glass front with a Public Market sign, and you'll be able to see in and see activity."
The old shed had 56 vendor slots, while the new shed will have 64. But half of the new slots will be twice as large, so it adds up to about 40 percent more rentable space, Farr says.
"We already have enough interest so that we're already having to be selective about who the new vendors are," he says. The first priority is to make sure that the current vendors get space, Farr says.
The larger spaces could be used for food preparation, a nutrition education center, and cooking classes, or as a kitchen for cooking demonstrations. And many of the winter-shed vendors are talking about adding products and being open more days as a result of the project, Farr says.
"So that's part of our hope, that there's going to be more to complement the shops and other things that have developed around the market," he says.
The area around the Public Market has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. The neighborhood, Marketview Heights, was singled out by the City of Rochester as a Focused Investment area, for example. And the Rochester-Monroe County Anti-Poverty Initiative selected Marketview and two additional neighborhoods as pilots for its initial programs.
"There's a bunch of things going on, and I think that this neighborhood, like many, is just on that tipping point of becoming a really vital neighborhood again," Farr says. "And it is a vital neighborhood – but really fulfilling its full potential."
More than $15 million has been invested on Railroad Street leading up to the Public Market in the last several years, he says, citing the Station 55 lofts, Black Button Distilling, and Rohrbach beer hall, as examples.
Winter-shed vendors will be able to sell their goods outside in fair weather once the renovation is completed, because parking will be prohibited in front of the building. That will also make the area more pedestrian-friendly, Farr says.
The renovation project started in April, and the winter-shed vendors moved to a temporarily enclosed new shed at the market about a month ago. The new shelter will remain after the new winter shed opens, but it won't be enclosed.
The 46 slots that will be in the new outdoor shelter will allow the market to add vendors, bring some of the vendors in nontraditional spaces into a shelter, and create more parking.
"We're always fighting between maximizing vending spots and trying to maximize parking, but it's still a challenge," Farr says.
About 1,000 parking spots have been added over the last decade, he says.
The food-stand vendors that flanked the indoor shed are operating out of repurposed shipping containers in a temporary location on the west end of the market near the Union Street entrance. They will stay in the containers permanently, which will eventually be relocated to the vendors' original spots.
The renovation is ahead of schedule and should be completed by late spring or early summer 2017, Farr says. The project is funded by a combination of state and city money and bonds.
But the Public Market is about more than vendors. It's also a prime site for socializing, agitating, and politicking — Hillary Clinton, former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Bobby Kennedy all pressed the flesh there.
The market keeps expanding its roster of programs and services to keep the public engaged. It held a Halloween event for the first time this year, recently started a bike-reward program to encourage more people to cycle to the site, and ran a summer shuttle service to and from the East End parking garage.
(The shuttle didn't get a lot of use, though: it averaged about 25 to 30 people a week. The market thought that people who come to the Public Market for the social element and not for heavy-duty shopping might use the shuttle, but it's difficult to convince people to give up their cars, Farr says. The market will re-evaluate the shuttle service in the spring, he says.)
"We have to make sure we keep reinventing ourselves and differentiating ourselves, because if you just want to go get corn and tomatoes, you can go anywhere," Farr says.
Eventually, Farr says he'd like to see another storefront in the market. The original plan was to do that right after the current project, but customers, vendors, and market workers need a break from construction, he says.
"We get a lot of requests for 500- to 1,000-square-foot buildings," Farr says. "We'd like to look at that possibility in the front parking lot," but that's a little ways off.