Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.

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 and locations: Royal Oak, Howell, Old Town Lansing, Flint, Downtown Lansing, Grand Blanc, Farmers Market at the CapitolTraverse City, Canton, Harbor Springs, Detroit Eastern Market, Saginaw, Midland, Frankenmuth, Port Huron, Williamson, Grand Rapids YMCA, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Birmingham, Grand Rapids Aquinas College Metro Health, East Lansing, Mt. Clemens, Mt. Pleasant, Dansville, Fenton, Bay City, Grand Rapids Fulton Street, Port Austin, Grand Rapids downtown, Walled Lake, Wayne State University, Islandview Market in Detroit, Lathrup Village, Farmington, Brighton 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.