Ground broken on new farmers market

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The corner of South Harwood Street and Marilla Street in Dallas’ southeast quadrant is the last place to expect to see a gathering of Dallas’ elite. It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday, and Range Rovers slide into a decaying parking lot with unmarked spaces. Dallasites know they’re not in a hot area of downtown when parking is easy and free.

It’s the groundbreaking for the “new” Dallas Farmers Market, a privatization project taken on by the DF Market Holdings. Over 150 business people, members of city management and well-known foodies have graced the entrance to the market to signify a new age of productivity for an area that had fallen into desolation and disrepair.

“I’ve watched it go down, down, down, and now, we’re going to watch it go up, up, up,” said Canton, Texas farmer J.T. Lemley during the groundbreaking ceremony.

Lemley has been a staple of the market for 38 years. He and his famous tomatoes were some of the last icons left in the concrete and steel “Shed One” for local produce.

Two years ago, the city of Dallas noticed that the market was drawing fewer local and out-of-town visitors each year. The once energetic, populous place only included five actual farmers and barely survived on city subsidies.

DF Market Holdings’ managing partners Brian Bergersen, Janet and Phil Cobb and Ruthie and Jay Pack won the bidding for the renovation project, and bought the property in June 2013. The renovation is more of a complete re-do, costing $65 million.

“I’ve got the first return on my investment — $150,” said Phil Cobb, looking down at his commemorative shovel after the ceremony.

But the hope is that the investment will yield further returns not only for the Cobbs and their partners, but also for the city. The plans include 70,000 square feet of restaurants and shops, 3000 apartments, 750 free parking spaces and double the space for farmers and vendors in air-conditioned sheds.

“I can’t think of a bigger thing happening here than what we are about to do in breaking ground for another monumental facility here in our community,” said John Crawford, President and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc.

For Crawford, the new farmers market will provide the city a needed tourism attraction in southeastern downtown, and help sustain population growth in downtown with desired amenities.

“I’m going to finally be able to answer the burning question that we get all the time: ‘Where’s the grocery store?’” Crawford said. “There it is, folks, there it is.”

The market will be the first stop on the D-Link bus from the Dallas Convention Center. And, in addition to the local produce and restaurants, retail may include a western wear shop, a steakhouse — things that appeal to tourists.

“I don’t think traffic will be an issue,” said Jack Gosnell, the retail advisor for the project. “We really have everything working our way right now.”

The idea of the renovation is to put farmers back in the heart of the action and add appeal to the interiors and exteriors of the glamorized “sheds.” People may be getting Texas products fresh from the farm, but shopping in the slick, streamlined buildings should feel like an elevated experience. Mayor Mike Rawlings, who headlined the groundbreaking, said this type of market is just what the city needs.

“The world is changing, but we still want our farmers market,” he said. “We are going to support this thing like there’s no tomorrow.”

Lemley, as a long-time member of the market, is excited for energy to replace the apathy of the past few years.

“People weren’t going through the trouble of coming down,” he said. “We’re showing that we’re back on track.”

Because they will be selling produce to bigger crowds and daily at the Dallas Farmers Market, the couple can now confidently plant large quantities of squash, kale, Swiss chard, cucumbers and whatever else they’d like. They anticipate growing Rae Lili Farms to meet the heightened demand of the market.

“It’s going to give us some exposure to new families and the conscientious consumer,” Roy said.

Kandi Lopez is that consumer the Martinez couple are ready to please. The Plano resident makes the 30-minute drive to the market twice a month. She hopes to teach her two daughters the importance of eating fresh food.

“I always grew up on instant and fast food. Now I can’t imagine not eating fruits and vegetables,” she said while shopping at the market the Saturday before the groundbreaking.

She thinks the new market will bring much needed change.

“Any time you can bring it more traffic, it’ll be better for the mom-and-pops in here,” she said.

The farmers at the groundbreaking, including Lemley and Roy and Sofia Martinez, see the leadership of DF Market Holdings as being instrumental in bringing life back to the market.

“They’re a top-notch group, and they have the talent to see this thing succeed,” Roy said.

But not everyone sees the people behind the renovation as doing something positive.

Pat Stubblefield, whose family has been vending at the Dallas Farmers Market for more than 100 years, isn’t optimistic about the privatization.

Stubblefield is not a farmer, but a vendor who sells produce she gets from Texas farms. The new market likely won’t have a place for her.

One week before the groundbreaking, she didn’t even know there was going to be a ceremony on the market’s corner.

“Longevity is not in the equation,” she said.

Gosnell said produce vendors may have a role in the new market, but the emphasis will be on actual farmers.

“Produce vendors are buying produce— the same produce that grocery stores buy—and selling it in the market,” he said. “Our goal is to make it back into a genuine market, to bring farmers back into the market.”

It’s a model Lemley believes in. For him, the groundbreaking served as a signal to the city that the market was on its way back to being a place you’d gladly come—even if you didn’t need produce—just for the atmosphere. And he thinks the crowds will come in force when Shed One reopens in its renovated form this June.

“I did plant a little extra so we’d have enough to go around,” he said.

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