Vision and Planning Are Needed to Keep the West Side Market Vibrant For the Next 100 Years by C. Ellen Connally

 

Cleveland Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack plans to assemble city officials, vendors, shoppers and neighborhood residents to study the future of one of Cleveland’s most iconic landmarks, the historic West Side Market. Located on a site that has been a market since 1840 and in a building that was built in 1912, the West Side Market is operated by the City of Cleveland’s public works department.

Over the last 100 years, there have been several major renovations. Recent improvements to the parking lots and the addition of Sunday hours have brought in a new clientele and new life to the Market. But as McCormack aptly points out in a recent Plain Dealer article, “It’s time to take a really hard look at the future of the market.” He also speculates as to whether it might be in the best interest of the city to explore the possibility of a partnership with a nonprofit organization, neighborhood development group or some commercial enterprise to manage the market.

The West Side Market is a unique shopping experience, but it is also based on a business model designed for the 20th century. To continue to flourish, planners must look to create a vision for the future that encompasses the city’s and local neighborhood’s changing demographics along with the ever-changing shopping habits of American consumers.

I vaguely remember going with my mother in the early 1950s to a chicken market on East 105th Street. My most vivid memory is of the live chickens in cages.  The worker would bring out a couple of chickens, my mother would look at them and, in a few minutes, we would go home with cut-up chickens wrapped in newspaper. Fortunately, I didn’t really understand that the soon-to-be-fried drumsticks in the package were the same chickens that were alive when we came into the market. People don’t shop like that anymore.

Today millennials use their tablet or laptop to order food or groceries that can be delivered to their door within a few hours. Many Generation X-ers and baby boomers use their computers and mobile phones to place grocery orders which are ready when they drive to the entrance to their local grocery store or Walmart. America’s shopping habits are forever changing and adapting to new technology and eating habits — Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s has figured that out.

The West Side Market is an entirely different shopping experience, with its individual vendors and open-air fruit and vegetable stands. Its old world European flavor is in direct contrast to online grocery shopping. The uniqueness of some of its products complements traditional supermarkets but it also competes with the more than 80 farmers markets that flourish during the summer months in Northern Ohio. But to loyal shoppers and foodies, the market is a virtual food Mecca that combines shopping, eating and plain old fashion people watching — it’s a shopping experience rather than the mundane task of buying food.

Many vendors have been there for generations, but small businesses are not always passed down to the next generation. Like other industries, this lack of transfer from generation to generation has taken its toll on the market’s tenants. With deaths, retirements and business failures, McCormack points out that one-third of the stands in the produce arcade are empty, as are other stands in the main building.

To deal with the natural attrition, experts must figure out how to replace the vendors and fill the empty stands with new and innovative entrepreneurs that are reflective of the city’s diverse culture while also continuing to provide those epicurean delights that appeal to the wide range of customers, from baby boomers to millennials and beyond.

It would also be useful to develop a plan to encourage city residents who live in food deserts where fresh fruits and vegetable are not readily available to use the market and provide them transportation to and from its near west side location.

The market is a well-advertised and popular tourist and visitor destination. Tourists will more likely buy prepared food and small quantities of fruits and bakery. They are not likely to buy fresh meats — one of the mainstays of the market. In a recent survey visitors complained about limited seating. They wanted a place to sit and eat what they bought, take a break or wait for friends. Areas where stands are vacant could be changed into areas for seating, and there has been speculation for years that the long-abandoned men’s locker room on the second floor could be renovated for potential seating or other innovative uses that could make the shopping experience more user-friendly.

Up until the late 1950s most of the market’s clientele were working-class people who walked from the surrounding neighborhoods or took public transportation. The blue-collar neighborhoods that originally surrounded the market are now replaced by upscale apartments filled with millennials who are more likely vegan or vegetarians than their meat-eating grandparents who came to purchase choice cuts of beef, pigs feet or old-world kielbasa.  The fresh fruits and vegetable at the Market are exactly what most of the new residents are seeking but they must be readily accessible for 21st century shoppers who may have experienced high-tech stores that don’t even require a check out — you just scan and leave.

To take the market successfully into the end of 21st century and sustain it for future generations, the city, tenants, neighbors, city planners and Destination Cleveland, our tourist and visitor’s bureau must come together to create a long-term vision that include high-tech options and market research to properly assess the market’s future. They must decide what the market will look and how it will function in the future as the faces and races of the vendors change, the demographics of the shoppers evolve, and shopping patterns adapt to the modern technology and lifestyles.

The West Side Market is one of Cleveland’s iconic landmarks. In the 1940s and 50s so was Cleveland’s downtown. If you had predicted 75 years ago that Higbee’s and the May Company would close, most people would have said you were crazy. Randall Park and Euclid Square Malls have been replaced by Legacy Village and Crocker Park. Shopping habits change and evolve. The West Side Market must be ready for the change.

C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.

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