View these photos showing scenes from farmers markets from throughout Michigan. Check out hundreds of additional photos in this collection on flickr by the Michigan Municipal League.

The 300-plus farmers markets that exist in Michigan come in all shapes and sizes. They’re in large urban centers and tiny villages. They pop up in parking lots, fields, roadsides, on Main Street and in permanent, historic structures.

A girl is excited about getting her face painted at the Sunday Grand Blanc Farmers Market.

A girl is excited about getting her face painted at the Sunday Grand Blanc Farmers Market.

They sell traditional farmers market fare – corn, apples, maple syrup, potatoes, and pumpkins – and the unexpected – homemade spices, baby clothes, fresh-caught fish, jewelry, and even sea urchin. You can get your knives sharpened, your face painted and your groceries for the week. At a farmers market you can find old friends and meet new ones. And you can talk to the vendor who grew the melon or flowers you’re thinking about buying.

Farmers markets can even help create a place for people to gather and revitalize a community and give an economic boost to existing businesses and inspire new merchants to open.

In writing a how-to case study about Michigan Farmers Market for the Michigan Municipal League, I got the chance this summer to visit more than 30 markets across our great state. I saw thousands of people pack into the new location for the Flint Farmers Market to great fanfare for its grand opening in downtown on June 21. I smelled the yummy salsa dish a woman was preparing for her church fundraiser at the Dansville Farmers Market. I saw a man holding a rooster in Birmingham, a robotics team in Grand Blanc, a violinist performing in East Lansing, a flutist in Traverse City, and Spanish mackerel on sale at the new Downtown Market in Grand Rapids.

I’ve always enjoyed going to farmers markets but the sights and sounds I experienced in my market tour this summer were truly inspirational, exciting and simply fun. While I saw many successful markets, I did experience some that seemed to need a shot in the arm. I also attempted to go to a couple markets that I eventually learned are no longer in operation.

So what makes one market flourish as another withers on the vine?

Farmers Joe and Mary Cooley enjoy talking with customers at the Mt. Pleasant Farmers Market on Island Park.

Farmers Joe and Mary Cooley enjoy talking with customers at the Mt. Pleasant Farmers Market on Island Park.

The success or failure of a market can come down to three words: Relationships, relationships, relationships, said Dru Montri, director of the Michigan Farmers Market Association, an East Lansing-based non-profit organization that tracks and provides support to farmers markets throughout the state. Montri said the 320 farmers markets in their data base this year is a record high since the association formed and starting tracking farmers markets in 2006. While some close each year many more open.

“Farmers markets are based on relationships,” Montri explained. “That’s the best thing about markets, and it can also be the most challenging aspect of markets. It’s relationships between farmers themselves, relationships between vendors and the market management, relationships between the market manager and sponsors and relationships between vendors and shoppers. All of those are very, very important. People love farmers markets because of that. People love going and talking to vendors about how things are grown.”

But Montri said when relationships sour that can impact everything in a market. A successful market will have strong leaders who can forge good relationships on all levels. She suggests a market have a board of directors or advisory team to oversee it.

Montri said the number of farmers markets in Michigan have doubled since 2006 for several reasons. Those reasons include an increase in consumer interest about where and how their food is made and processed; a growing awareness among community leaders about the value a farmers market can have in economic development and creating a sense of place and community in their town; and a desire by farmers and vendors in direct marketing options, which tend to be more profitable.

She believes the number of markets will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, especially as more markets start to offer financial assistance programs to those in need, such as the acceptance of SNAP Bridge Cards and related services.

“There is such a large number of consumers who haven’t even yet considered shopping at farmers markets,” Montri said. “As long as we have the potential to bring more people into farmers markets, we have the opportunity to expand the number of markets. As long as we are strategic about growth, we can avoid these saturation points. But, starting a market a mile away from an existing market on the same day of the week, for example, can cause over saturation.”

View hundreds of photos from Michigan farmers markets on the League's flickr page, flickr.com/michigancommunities

View hundreds of photos from Michigan farmers markets on the League’s flickr page, flickr.com/michigancommunities

You can view slide shows of all the markets I visited here in this collection on the League’s flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/michigancommunities/collections/72157647210449456/.

There are photos of markets from these communities (so far): Royal Oak, Howell, Old Town Lansing, Flint, Downtown Lansing, Grand Blanc, Traverse City, Canton, Harbor Springs, Detroit Eastern Market, Saginaw, Midland, Frankenmuth, Port Huron, Williamson, Grand Rapids YMCA, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Birmingham, Grand Rapids Metro Health, East Lansing, Mt. Clemens, Mt. Pleasant, Dansville, Fenton, Farmington, Brighton, Bay City, Grand Rapids Fulton Street, Port Austin, Grand Rapids downtown, Walled Lake, Wayne State University, Islandview Market in Detroit, Lathrup Village and Linden.

Check out a video of Montri discussing the value of farmers markets here: http://placemaking.mml.org/michigan-farmers-markets/

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at (734) 669-6317 and mbach@mml.org. 

The Michigan Main Street Center recently published Ten Years of Excellence: The Economic Impacts of Main Street in Michigan. With more than 45 communities participating in the program, benefits have spread across the state.

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Michigan Main Street participant Boyne City is able to draw large crowds to their downtown for special events.

The state-led program started in 2003 with the goal to help communities revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Similar to MML’s placemaking strategy, the Main Street Program encourages communities to expand on their unique assets and fill gaps where necessary. This model is a community-driven Four-Point Approach® of placemaking that highlights design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

According to the report, the Michigan Main Street Program has:

  • Boosted community investment: Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
  • Improved business and expanded job opportunities: 250 new businesses have been established and more than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts.
  • Increased tax revenue: Local property tax revenues in Main Street districts see an estimated $3 million more each year because of improvements to downtown buildings. The state has also seen an increase in sales tax from new businesses in Main Street districts by $3.1 million each year.
  • Leveraged community volunteers: The value of volunteer hours spent in Main Street districts equates to nearly $8 million.

Michigan Main Street City: Boyne City

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City has already implemented Main Street initiatives and now serves as a mentor to other communities. As highlighted in an MML case study the Main Street Program helped Boyne City leaders:

  • Create successful downtown events, including a farmers market.
  • Invest more than $6 million in downtown infrastructure.
  • Found a local economic development team of community stakeholders.
  • Help property owners with facade renovations.
  • Attract new residents and businesses.
  • Partner with a private developer on a multimillion dollar mixed-use project.
  • And simply create a downtown residents and visitors could enjoy!

Learn about Boyne City’s Main Street improvements here.

Important initiatives like Michigan Main Street are strengthening communities and increasing resident quality of life. We’re glad to support and continue these sort of projects through placemaking, education, and our policy framework.

As soon as we stepped out of the airport and onto the nearby platform for MAX Rail, my colleague Sarah Craft and I knew we weren’t in Detroit anymore. For only $2.50, this clean, quick, quiet light rail system whisked us to downtown Portland, where we got off just a block from our hotel – and the site of the National League of Cities State League Staff Workshop.

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Live music at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland

Along the ride, several locals noticed our suitcases and engaged us in friendly conversation, asking us where we were from, where we were going, and pointing out local landmarks. We passed a farmer’s market, gatherings of food trucks, public plazas designed for concerts and other fun community activities, and walkable streets filled with people streaming in and out of stores, restaurants and offices. In short, we saw placemaking in action.

All of this set the stage for the State League Staff Workshop, the reason for our visit to Portland. We were part of a large contingent of league staffers from around the country who had come to learn and share their knowledge. As a first-timer, I discovered that state leagues come in all sizes – some as small as 2 or 3 staff members – but we all have the same dedication to the cities and towns we represent.

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Right off the bat, I was impressed with the generosity of my fellow workshop participants. At the Communications Networking Roundtable, everyone chimed in with questions and suggestions on everything from convention and video apps to social media strategies. When we broke into sessions, league staffers shared successes and lessons learned on a number of topics. One of my favorite sessions was on PR. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns showcased their Arizona Cities @ Work PR campaign, designed to highlight the great work being done in their cities. Samantha Womer and Rene Guillen brought plenty of campaign “bling” – mugs, tote bags, lanyards and more – which they gladly offered to everyone in the room.

My other favorite session was Don’t Reinvent Content … Reuse, Recycle, Reformat for Maximum Impact. Mary Brantner of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and Jennifer Stamps of the Texas Municipal League made the point that people generally need to see or hear something seven times to really get the message. They then shared ideas on how to publish content in a variety of formats on different platforms to meaningfully reach your members.

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Voodoo Doughnut

When I wasn’t engaged in a session, I took the opportunity to explore a little of downtown Portland. Just a block away was Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as Portland’s Living Room. This urban park hosts events almost every day of the year. I was lucky enough to enjoy live lunchtime music one day and sand sculptures the next day. Since there is no sales tax in Oregon, I made a quick dash into Macy’s and snapped up some summer bargains. I relished the local cuisine at Bottle & Kitchen and Clarklewis Restaurant. And, oh yeah, I definitely made a side trip to Portland’s infamous Voodoo Doughnut. At the 3rd Avenue location, placemaking had turned the alley alongside the shop into an inviting space with picnic tables and attractive landscaping. I soaked up the morning sun at one of those tables as I munched on a yummy chocolate-glazed old fashioned doughnut.

Last week the National League of Cities hosted their 2014 State League Staff Workshop in Portland, OR. Here, staff from state leagues around the country gathered to network, learn, and discuss emerging issues in the field.

Presenting on how leagues can support distressed communities with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer

Presenting at the NLC Staff Workshop with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer, on how municipal leagues can support distressed communities.

In a workshop co-led by Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, I had the opportunity to present MML’s work on supporting distressed communities. MML’s role promoting placemaking by highlighting case studies, enhancing crowdfunding, and developing a place-based policy platform are unique to leagues across the country. Workshop attendees were eager to hear about Detroit and the creative ways MML is supporting the state’s communities.

Portland, OR

Portland's Saturday Market on the riverfront

Portland’s Saturday Market on the riverfront

Hosting the NLC’s conference in Portland was a wonderful illustration of effective placemaking. The city has incredibly effective and low-cost public transportation, miles and miles of bike lanes, small and walkable city blocks, and neighborhoods full of life and character. Yes, the city’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” was true to its name, but even the strangest people were kind, helpful, and excited to talk about their city.

Downtown Portland was full of activity with public plazas, food carts, multimodal transportation, and people doing things people do: talking, laughing, eating, soaking up the sun, shopping, and simply looking at other people.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland's streets. Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland’s streets: Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

After the conference, I stayed an extra night in the Alberta District in north-east Portland. The people I stayed with had an extra bike for guests, so I was really able to get around like a Portlander! There were amazing local shops, a ton of places to eat, and parks full of activity.

I was floored at how friendly people were and how eager they were to help a tourist. People started real conversations while waiting in line, said hello on the street, and customer service staff took pride in their roles (and with a minimum wage of $9.10/hour and rising, there was plenty of reason to be genuine).

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

While wandering around the city, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report kept popping into my head. The study found that aesthetics, openness and social offerings are what people loved most about where they live. Portland looks great, people felt open to diversity, and there were countless opportunities to connect with others on the street, at an event, or standing line at the food truck: Portland makes a great case study.

Although we have aspects of Portland’s magic in some Michigan communities, many have a long way to go. Not every city should be exactly like Portland, but our role at MML is to help communities expand on their own unique assets and become the best cities they can be.