Fewer than 20 vendors hawking fresh fruits and crafts gathered along a downtown side street to little fanfare for the modest grand opening of the Saturday Morning Market six years ago.
Now, the weekly fresh market has blossomed into one of downtown's most recognizable events, with more than 100 vendors, sales averaging $100,000 a week and thousands of loyal customers from throughout Central Florida.
It is so successful that it has outgrown Central Avenue, say market officials, who hope to find a new home for the seasonal fair this year.
But a dearth of suitable locations downtown has incited debate within City Hall about the future of the market in St. Petersburg. City leaders say the market would fit nicely into one of downtown's popular parks. Market officials have been eyeing part of the parking lot at Al Lang Field, which they argue would better suit the market's needs, despite the historic ballpark's uncertain future.
"We are kind of stuck between a rock and hard place between coming up with a viable place that the organizers would like to have and a place where the city can put them," council member Herb Polson said.
"The one thing everyone can agree on is that we want the market to be here," council member Leslie Curran said. "We know it's very popular with the community, and we want it to stay and grow."
The seasonal Saturday market — open from early October to late May each year — has quickly become a popular community event. Strangers mingle over cakes, coffee and cucumbers; lunch is served by a man in a suit and top hat; and a guitar-strumming Mayor Rick Baker is known to occasionally belt out a tune.
"We miss it when it is gone in the summer," said Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. "We are diehards."
More than 5,000 from throughout the Tampa Bay area attend the market each week. Market officials predict that number could swell to 10,000 per week during the next five years.
"We know people who are driving regularly from Pasco County, Lakeland and Sarasota," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the market. "We have people who tell us they no longer go because it is so crowded."
The new location would need adequate parking, shade, trash collection and electrical outlets, Johnson said.
City staffers said they have narrowed down the list of potential sites to either Williams Park or Straub Park.
Neither would entirely fit the market's needs.
Vendors would not have the same access to their booths as they do along Central Avenue, where they can easily drive up to their table and unload their vehicles. There are also no restrooms or trash bins at Straub Park, and electrical outlets are limited at both parks.
"Neither park was designed to accommodate the Saturday Market or an event of that type," said Clarence Scott, city services administrator.
Widening and thickening park sidewalks to allow vehicle access to the market might be needed, Scott said. It's unclear who would have to pay for these improvements.
"There is no budget," Scott said. "We are still in the early, early, exploratory stages."
Al Lang Field is an ideal location because it already has restrooms, storage and garbage facilities, and a sizable parking lot, Johnson said.
"It already has everything we need," he said.
The ballpark, the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training home, will be vacant next year when the team moves to its new training quarters in Port Charlotte. The Rays have proposed a new major league baseball stadium at Al Lang, and team officials have said they would eagerly accommodate the market.
But city officials say Al Lang doesn't make sense as a long-term solution.
"We are not looking at Al Lang as a longtime home," Scott said. "It's too uncertain as to what may happen there, and our desire is not to look for a temporary site."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.