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Economy takes toll on St. Petersburg's Wednesday Midday Market

Visitors enjoyed blues music, ethnic foods, artists’ wares and other vendors at the Wednesday Midday Market at Williams Park back in November. The sluggish economy may cause it to be suspended.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2008)

Visitors enjoyed blues music, ethnic foods, artists’ wares and other vendors at the Wednesday Midday Market at Williams Park back in November. The sluggish economy may cause it to be suspended.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Wednesday Midday Market could become the latest casualty of the economy.

Dozens of local food and craft vendors have abandoned the weekly event at Williams Park because of low customer turnout. Organizers say it has gotten so bad that they might have no choice but to suspend the market until the economy rebounds.

"This economy has just really killed us," said market manager David Cellon. "I really think people just aren't spending money right now."

Even after the market suspended its $20 weekly vendor fee for three weeks, the number of vendors eventually dropped from 30 to seven.

"I just couldn't get enough vendors to participate," Cellon said. "It just wasn't viable for them. If you make 5 gallons of soup and you only sell a few cups of soup, you've lost money."

The market reopened to much fanfare in November, after an 18-month sabbatical. The event, designed as a midday respite for downtown cubicle dwellers, featured live music, food and local art from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

But even on its best days, the market drew fewer than 100 customers during its seven-week run, organizers said.

After a particularly slow market on Christmas Eve, the event was temporarily suspended and has been in limbo since. A few bouts of cold and rainy weather didn't help either, said Gail Eggeman, manager of the Saturday Morning Market at Al Lang Field, which also runs the Williams Park event.

The market's fate likely will be decided today during the monthly meeting of Friends of Williams Park, a group of volunteers angling to revitalize the historic town square.

Cellon thinks the market should close, but other downtown activists want to keep it open.

"I'd hate to see it go, just because it's another event in the park and it's a good thing for downtown," said Kevin Lilly, a founder of the private marketing group Downtown Bloc and the Last Friday Concert Series at Williams Park.

City Council member Leslie Curran said the market needs time to build a loyal following. "You can't expect everything to be an overnight success," she said.

Curran, who operates the Saturday Art Market at Williams Park, said she thinks the Wednesday event could be successful if it was reinvented as a gathering spot for lunchtime brown baggers and focused more on entertainment and crafts.

"Don't compete with the downtown restaurants, don't compete with the people you want to support you," she said.

The Wednesday event has been plagued with challenges since its debut in February 2007.

Community leaders hoped the market would reintroduce Williams Park to downtown workers who had long written it off as a de facto camp for the city's growing homeless population.

At first, the plan seemed to work. More than 1,000 customers crowded the park during its first eight-week run, and few complained about the homeless.

But organizers opted against reviving the market for 18 months, and momentum around the event seems to have waned.

"Things like that take awhile to really take hold," said Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and a proponent of the market. "It takes awhile for people to get used to it being there and to go and have a good time and tell their friends."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Economy takes toll on St. Petersburg's Wednesday Midday Market 01/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 6:52pm]
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