Monday, June 18, 2018
Business

Carlton: At last, a downtown outdoor market in Tampa that could just work

If like me you think cool amenities like an outdoor market are important to a downtown's success, here's good news on that previously dismal Tampa front.

While news on this particular subject is unfailingly sunny over in St. Petersburg, with its lively Saturday Morning Market of just-cored pineapples, fresh-cut sunflowers and maybe a plate of pesto pasta to eat while you check out the booths, Tampa cannot seem to get an outdoor market right. It's moved hither and yon, been held on a disastrous day of the week and, illogically, stopped serving prepared food on which browsers could nosh.

It worked for a while when it was held midday on Fridays. People crowded in to buy fancy olive oils and baguettes and yes, hot food, it being lunchtime and all. In both attendance and appeal, that market sure looked like a success to me.

So, naturally, they moved it. Downtown restaurants had complained it cut into their business, and organizers deemed it too heavy on food trucks, like that's even possible. It went to Sundays, losing that busy workday lunch crowd.

By now, you're probably ready for the good news.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership recently started up the latest version in a great space — the centrally located Lykes Gaslight Square Park, a pleasant, grassy park of shady trees and paths in the center of downtown. The hours were a little odd — 3 p.m. into the evening, in hopes of catching workers heading to parking garages and residents walking dogs.

My review: not enough vendors yet, though the ones there were promising. You could buy fresh vegetables and pastry, nice honey, gourmet dog treats, about 15 booths in all. Under the trees as the day cooled down, a guy played pleasant guitar and people spread mats in the grass for free yoga. Yep, definite potential.

But here's the thing about Tampa: At 5 p.m., people who do not live downtown get in their cars and go home. (It would be nice if we could say they use our efficient transit system to get there, but that's another column for another day.) And so, organizers recently tweeted this big news: The market in the square is opening from noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays, meaning people can browse and buy during the busiest part of the downtown day. Hallelujah: A market that makes sense.

Still in the balance is whether they will have prepared food — which, trust me, would bring in that noon crowd. Nearby restaurants still depend on those customers. But there's talk of how to bring those restaurants into the market, another stellar idea.

"Never say never," said the Partnership's Donna Chen of the possibility of prepared food.

It's kind of a chicken and egg thing (and yes, they do have a chicken and egg man): Do good vendors bring crowds, or do crowds attract more interesting vendors?

Georgea Snyder is the new market manager. She's done them in New York and already has an impressive vendor wish list: more locally grown produce, fresh seafood, dairy, mushrooms, fresh-cut flowers. (She, too, would like to see better public transportation — I know, another column, another day.)

What does she think of the potential? Promisingly on the cusp, Snyder said. "I think we're just so close." And she's right — particularly if the direction we keep growing is forward.

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