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A Fresno Public Market Would Give the San Joaquin Valley Its “Local” Food Back

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment

Could a Fresno Public Market revitalize the 34th largest city in the U.S.? Public markets have helped revive neighborhoods across North America, from Milwaukee to Cleveland to Washington, DC and are huge economic generators in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver. They have long anchored neighborhoods in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Grand Rapids is hoping to pin economic growth on Michigan’s stunning produce and local food companies. Now Fresno is hoping a public market in its historic, eclectic and struggling downtown can become a destination for visitors and the 1.6 million people who live within a 45 minute drive from Fresno.

The possible remodel of a shuttered department store would be important to Fresno, the San Joaquin Valley and hundreds of food companies and farmers in the region because the city has long allowed southern California and the Bay Area to hijack regional products and pass them off as “local.” Much of the produce, and many of the food products you have seen in farmers markets across California, are indeed “local” if you use the term generously. But take a look at the farmers market certifications the crates of fruits and vegetables and labels on jars, and you will see the names of towns including Sanger, Selma, Kingsburg, Dinuba, Mendota and Ceres. And while the San Joaquin Valley is home to some of the most profitable agribusiness giants in the U.S., a culture of local food innovation has emerged and is thriving.

The problem is that Fresno has long been a city run by and for the developers, which is why much of the newer northern neighborhoods look like the set of Jason Bateman’s TV show Arrested Development. Now it is time to capitalize on the region's strength: food.

One of the leaders pushing for a Fresno Public Market is Craig Scharton, the city’s business development director. Sharton, working with the city’s current mayor Ashley Swearengin, has mulled  the idea of a public market for several years. To that end, Scharton has been one driving force behind the Fresno Food Expo, which the city hosted for the third time yesterday. Almost 120 local food companies showed off their products to buyers from across the U.S., from organic fresh and dried fruit to P*DE*Q’s Brazilian pao de queijo to artisan cheeses and chocolates. The one-day event was a representation of the 70-plus ethnic groups who live in Fresno and the surrounding region: Basque marinades, Armenian lahvosh, Mexican peanut sauce and milk produced at Portuguese family-owned dairy farms were just a few of the products showcased at the local convention center.

Sharton envisions a public market that would have a minimum 25,000 square feet of space on the old Gottchalk’s department store, not including the basement and nearby buildings that could also become a part of this regional food emporium. For local food companies, many of whom cannot get their products into the local Whole Foods or speciality markets, a public market would be the place to test market new ideas as well as meet with distributors from across the country year round. Local ethnic specialities such as Armenian lahmajoon, Mexican tamales, Hmong pho, German-Russian bierocks and Swedish pastries are just a few of the products Scharton sees pitched at a future public market--not to mention the bevy of foods local pistachio, almond, stone fruit and grape growers could feature at the site.

Of course the devil is in the details. The city owns most of the former Gottschalk’s site. Litigation is underway to recoup financial losses from damage within the building; the former tenant, which the city evicted, oddly enough runs a swap mall in the portion of the building that the city does not own. Fresno, like many municipalities, has been financially strapped for several years, but tax credits from programs such as EB-5 and NMTC (New Markets Tax Credit) program are a possibility--and yesterday Sharton made his pitch to the heads of several local charitable and community foundations.

The benefits are numerous: the market could serve as a locus for health food and living education; a hub of food entrepreneurship; a commercial kitchen incubator where young companies could experiment with their ideas; and a food and entertainment center that could have an economic multiplier effect with the opening of new restaurants, microbreweries and other businesses. Judging by the success of other public markets across the country, and the world, a public market is an opportunity for Fresno to not only take ownership of its amazing local food products, but to spark economic development in a city with a stubborn unemployment rate stuck at 17 percent.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. Most recently he explored children’s health issues in India with the International Reporting Project. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credits: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye