Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Saturday Morning Market returns to St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Park

As the humidity starts to dip below 90 percent, one thing is certain — the Saturday Morning Market's fall season beckons.

Some residents — and vendors — are practically giddy about the market's return.

The market represents a time when locals swarm to the parking lot at Progress Energy Park for produce, crafts and community.

In the Sunshine City, the town square isn't a place, it's an event — Saturday Morning Market.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the market and organizers are planning a monthlong celebration.

That will include sharing businesses and people whose experience at the market compelled them to move to St. Petersburg. The owners of Primi Urban Cafe at 47 Fourth St. N and the owners of Rearden Killion Communications — the producers of I Love the 'Burg website — are among those who made such a move.

The market got its start on Nov. 10, 2002. The first Saturday opened with 20 vendors along Second Street. But that turned out to be a bad location.

"After the first season we figured it was too much of a wind tunnel," said Gail Eggeman, market manager.

There were 30 vendors by the end of the first season and by the start of the second that number had grown to 45, Eggeman said.

From the start, the market was popular, drawing visitors from throughout the greater Tampa Bay region. Today, it has grown to 200 vendors rotating through 130 spaces.

Some longtime venders are there each week. Others must rotate spaces, sometimes selling their wares once or twice a month.

"We are blessed now to be extremely selective about new vendor applicants," said Mark Johnson, director of the market. In its 10-year history, organizers have probably turned down 1,000 applicants, he said. In recent months they've sat down with 60 applicants and will probably invite about a dozen.

In addition to being selective, the market stands out in coaching its vendors for optimal growth potential.

Organizers plan to add a new wrinkle in November.

"We're in the planning stages in building a food demonstration capability, which will show people how to cook interesting and unusual food that they may not be familiar with," Johnson said.

There will be two new farmers this year, which brings the total to 15.

"We have a very unusual farmer from Ruskin who has won awards for state-of-the-art sustainable farming, called 3 Boys Farm," Johnson said.

"They do an incredible job supplying high-end greens to gourmet restaurants."

As far as turnover, visitors should expect to see all their favorite vendors.

"Short of death, nobody wants to leave," Johnson quipped.

Student lunch crowd

It seems the lunch crowd has slowed to a crawl for some merchants in and around the University Village Shopping Center.

During a recent lunch outing I sensed a thinning of the herd and strolled around the block. Despite offering sweet deals, several restaurants are seeing fewer students for lunch.

In recent years, Subway and other restaurants in the area enjoyed a steady flow of customers as the University of South Florida St. Petersburg experienced growing pains.

That growth extended beyond the shopping center. This included about 50 students taking up residence at the Bayfront Hilton at 333 First St. S and Café 100 at 100 Second Ave. S offering special meal plans to those students.

But times have changed.

Thanks to the recent completion of the school's new 81,000-square-foot University Student Center, which includes a dining hall, fewer students are venturing out for meals.

Meal plans are available on campus, so it's more convenient for students, was the sentiment from several shops.

The school's new student center offers food services, meeting rooms, outdoor sitting areas and a six-story residence hall.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874 and on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.

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