Last Friday night, more than 500 Portlanders paid $50 apiece to attend a fundraiser at Union Station for the proposed Portland Public Market. The iconic train station was packed with people excited by the idea of creating a local version of Seattle's Pike Place Market, mostly well-heeled Portlanders slurping pinot and chowing vittles by stalwart chefs with names like Paley and Higgins to the tune of a live jazz duo.
The market does sounds like a perfect fit for food-obsessed PDX. Too bad this same party has been taking place for nearly a decade. Although, in the latest twist, a new site for the market emerged just 48 hours before the soiree.
Since 1999, chef turned politico Ron Paul and a cadre of local foodies and bureaucrats have been on a mission to land a public market downtown. The crusade was sparked in 1993 when Heidi Yorkshire, a volunteer for Portland Farmers Market (now a WW contributor), wrote a proposal for a public market hall with rent-paying tenants that could provide a permanent, year-round home for the Portland Farmers Market.
This blueprint became the framework for the Public Market. However, it soon became clear that the proposed site, Ankeny Square, couldn't accommodate the growing downtown Farmers Market, and the parties went their separate ways. The Farmers Market stayed in the downtown Park Blocks, and Paul and company focused on the concept of a separate Public Market filled with local produce, vendors and restaurants.
Nearly a decade later, the two markets no longer aim to fill the same niche. "The Public Market opens economic opportunities for farms that are too big for a farmers market," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who's a member of the Public Market board. "But still committed to the ideals of sustainability."
To date, the Public Market concept has garnered $470,000 in earmarked congressional funding ($300,000 was contingent on the Ankeny Square site). It's raised approximately $70,000 more at various fundraisers. Meanwhile, the proposed site for the Public Market has changed twice just in the past year. Union Station was the preferred spot until last Wednesday, when real-estate developer the Melvin Mark Company announced it had struck a deal with the Public Market Foundation to house the Public Market in a federal building at 511 NW Broadway, currently occupied by the Department of Homeland Security. But don't get hungry yet. Paul says the project will not be completed until 2013—at the earliest.
Great...so why is this all taking so long? Paul blames the long delay on funding and a lack of political will. But I think a local PR guru has a better answer:
"The market is not part of daily conversation," says Lisa Donoughe, a local media-relations strategist. "Initiatives like this need to be integrated into the community on all levels so the buzz builds and builds."
Interesting. Now, let's take a closer look at who wasn't at Friday night's fundraiser:
I didn't see any of the ethnic food vendors, farmers, fishmongers and cheese merchants who would fill the proposed market's stalls. And where were the chocolatiers and the butchers? Most importantly, where were the young and roguish Portland chefs getting so much ink in top food publications? How do they feel about a PDX public market?
"I don't really know anything about it, to be honest," says Andy Ricker, whose Thai shack Pok Pok was featured last week in a dashing New York Times write-up.
Of the six chefs I queried, only Le Pigeon's Gabriel Rucker knew about the fundraiser, but that's because he was asked to take part. (He gave a cooking demo later that weekend at Williams-Sonoma in the Washington Square Mall.)
While the public market has floundered, its inspiration, the Portland Farmers Market, has grown into a financially stable entity operating four markets, three days a week, nine months of the year—and without a penny of the dole.
"The city hasn't given us dick," says Farmers Market Vice President and Park Kitchen chef-owner Scott Dolich. "And we haven't asked for dick."
The city charges the Farmers Market $1,750 a month to use its public land, even as the market lures around 500,000 shoppers downtown each year. To put that in perspective, Seattle charges its city's Neighborhood Farmer's Market Association $200 for an entire season at one of its farmers markets. I'd argue that the secret to its success is exactly what the Public Market is missing—it feels homegrown.
So we have a thriving Farmers Market network that's not being helped by the city, and we have a Public Market that is a superb idea but still stuck on the drawing board. Paul says in order for the market to open sometime this century the city needs to allocate an additional $8 million in funding, but the city isn't even supporting our market that already exists.
These questions need to be addressed. In the meantime, maybe the Portland Public Market should rethink its audience to include all those vendors, young chefs and Portlanders who can't afford to shell out $50 for a staid fundraising dinner and start building the kind of enthusiasm and momentum that national publications seem to say our food scene already has. That is, if it ever wants to resonate with any local community larger than cheese-nibbling benefactors.