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Downtown property manager envisions downtown Elkhart farmers market

Creating an opportunity to buy locally grown food in a new building designed as a farmers market could help further downtown Elkhart’s revitalization, as a city council member sees it.

Dave Osborne wants to develop the market on property he owns just south of the railroad tracks on downtown Elkhart’s southern edge, across Freight Street from the National New York Central Railroad Museum and next to Bowly’s Crystal Bar. He’s looking for investors willing to put up the building’s estimated $400,000 cost — money he thinks could be easily recouped from rent that vendors would pay.

Osborne, a city council member, envisions an 11,550-square-foot steel frame structure with steel exterior finish that would house a restaurant, five larger retail spaces fronting St. Joseph Street, and 10 stalls rented out to a mix of local food and craft vendors. It would operate year-round with ample parking.

“A lot like the farmers market in South Bend, where it’s open air and you’ve got multi vendors who are selling everything from produce to art and antiques and leather goods,” Osborne said.

Osborne, who owns and rents out several downtown buildings, said since he’d supply the land, he doesn’t want to also bear the cost of fronting the capital for the project. But he’s confident it would succeed.

“I think it’s pretty much a phenomenon that’s happened the last 10 or 15 years in America,” Osborne said. “The upstart of farmers markets has been going on all over the place.”

According to his projections, charging vendors about $400 a month would generate enough revenue to recoup the initial investment relatively quickly. The low rent would help attract plenty of vendors, he said.

“A lot of people dream of having a little retail business, but when they go out to a strip mall or something and check into rent, it can cost you $1,200 to $1,500 a month for rent, then you have to pay all of your utility deposits, your set-up costs, your dropped ceiling and your carpet,” he said. “Before you know it, it can cost you a couple thousand bucks a month just to open the doors, so it’s difficult for small business people to get into the retail business because they can’t find affordable spaces.”

Diana Lawson, chair of SoMa, the South Main Street revitalization initiative, said the project would be a “great asset” for the area.

“This fits in perfectly with what the SoMa vision is,” Lawson said. “We’re lucky to have someone like Dave interested in sparking it.”

Lawson said she would love to see downtown restaurants partner with the farmers market vendors, as part of the “farm-to-fork” trend that consumers are increasingly demanding.

She said she plans to start talking about the concept more around town to create awareness among potential vendors, farmers and restaurants.

Another big fan of the idea is Mayor Dick Moore. Osborne has given him copies of his architectural renderings and proposal.

“I like the idea a lot,” Moore said. “I’ve always wanted Elkhart to have something like that. Wherever I’ve been where there’s been a farmers market set up like he has drawn here, they’ve been successful.”

If Osborne can secure the capital to build the facility from the private sector, the city might be willing to explore whether it can offer publicly funded help. That could come in the form of a property tax abatement or in-kind infrastructure work, such as paving a parking lot, Moore said, while noting he has not yet researched which, if any, federal, state or city resources could be tapped for such help.

“There has to be some outside interest before the city would become involved,” Moore said.

But the mayor said he doesn’t think it’s far-fetched that Osborne can find private sector investors.

“It may be he’s chosen the right time,” Moore said. “We’re coming out of the downturn and there is more investment being made.”

Osborne was asked why he’s so confident his farmer’s market could succeed when others, such as the one attempted on S.R. 19 south of Elkhart, failed a few years back. He said that one ended up being more of a flea market than a farmers market.

”My whole idea is design and build this building that’s specifically for this purpose,“ he said. ”There’s a lot of forethought … if you do it right and make it affordable, people will come. It’s a gamble, to a certain extent. There’s not that many people who are into building strip malls or retail centers. Most of that now is done by the big developers, the big money people. This is kind of a smaller scale thing. This would take somebody locally who sees the value in it.”

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