Stimulating news for Columbia

My latest column in the Columbia Daily Tribune. For the record, it has been completely hacked to pieces (not by Marcia, but during production) and is a mess on the Trib site and in the paper. Here it is as originally written.

The Columbia Farmers Market has really gotten around over the years; six moves to five different locations by my count. They’ve moved so often customers could have been forgiven if they stopped showing up. But they haven’t. In fact, more people showed up last year than ever before: up to 5,000 customers on a good day.

Growers, perhaps sensing the groundswell of interest in nutritious local foods, began planning for a permanent structure to house the market more than ten years ago. Through political and economic ups and downs, they’ve had to be patient. Still, an all-volunteer effort led by Dan Kuebler raised more than $200,000 toward the project. Architectural renderings and plans were made, with an eye to making the pavilion far more than just a covering for the market itself.

In December Sustainable Farms and Communities, the non-profit group overseeing the pavilion project, hired their first full-time employee to raise the remaining funds. Casey Corbin has had an eventful two months, visiting with donors, organizing events and bringing the effort into the modern age – hello, Facebook. And then last week happened.

Corbin learned that the pavilion project was on the list to potentially receive funds – some $2.6 million – through the federal stimulus package. He credits former state Representative Judy Baker for putting the project on the radar screen. Officials, at both the federal and state levels, have sought out projects that could have immediate but sustainable economic impact. The pavilion effort – generating both short and long term benefits – could qualify.

“When we heard that there was interest in this project from the [Missouri] Department of Agriculture, I thought that it made perfect sense,” Corbin said. “We were fortunate to have a shovel-ready project, which is what the state is looking for.”

Now I’ll admit to being a total homer for this project; and in the interest of full disclosure will note that I have recently joined it’s advisory committee. But whatever your views on the stimulus package or farmers markets in general, the benefit of the market pavilion to our community would be quickly realized and with us for years to come.

First, the open-air pavilion could accommodate more vendors and incubate a number of small businesses. Research cited by SF&C also indicates that the building of a permanent structure has increased sales at markets, resulting in increased sales tax revenue for municipalities. Educational programming and community events will have a home at the pavilion. Protection from the fickle Missouri weather is another major benefit. While nearly 5,000 customers may show up on a good day, rain can cut the number by more than half.

“If it even looks like rain, customers don’t even go near the place,” Phil Stewart told me. He grows a variety of produce in Callaway County and has been coming to the market for several years. Stewart sees space as an issue as well.

“For the first time we may have to turn vendors away” this summer, he said. “Our market manager has been very creative about sticking vendors into nooks and crannies, but there are no more nooks and crannies.”

There are still a number of hurdles before funding for the project is a done deal, but Corbin is optimistic. In the meantime, area farmers are busy getting ready for the market opening on March 21. The rest of us can keep our fingers crossed.

Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at ShowMeEats.com. Reach him at ShowMeEats@gmail.com.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

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