ITHACA, N.Y.—As these kinds of open-air markets go, the Ithaca Farmer’s Market (IFM) is something of a local gem in the community’s crown. The market is lauded by those listicle–style national publications as among the top in the country, and not without some merit. It’s charmingly quirky, it has a variety of options from fresh farm goods to prepared dishes to arts and crafts, and, if you can put up with the hassle of parking there, it’s a fine way to spend a weekend morning during Ithaca’s warmer months.

IFM Executive Director Anton Burkett has been attending the market for over 20 years, first as a vendor selling vegetables from his farm, then as a board member on the not-for-profit cooperative that runs the market, and, since last September, as the new head honcho of the operation. It was a tough time to be taking over; like many other service-oriented operations, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the market.

“It was a bit of a mitigated disaster last year for us,” Burkett said. “It was really difficult for many of our members, especially our artisans and our food service members, because we had to limit attendance at the market to keep social distancing going. The artisans weren’t allowed to attend until July, due to the essential business definition. This resulted in lower attendance fees, lower vendor fees, and no event rentals.”

Thankfully, with the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines, and a successful statewide rollout that has led to to a significant decline in cases and the lifting of more onerous health and social distancing requirements, the market is starting to return to a semblance of normalcy. It will take time to make up for last year’s losses, however.

“(T)his year we’re making money again, vendors are happy to be there, our events are all booked. Some of our early ones got cold feet and moved them to September or next year, but we didn’t really lose any events this year. We have to keep encouraging customers to come down and support our vendors; it takes time to recover from a year of lots income for our vendors, who are mostly small businesses with thin margins. Losing one markets’ worth of sales can be a huge impact,” said Burkett.

With that return to profitability and the rhythms of a bustling open-air market, the IFM has been able to turn its attentions back to long-term plans, in the works for several years – a major reconstruction of the pavilion, parking lot and waterfront on which the market sits. Yes, they’re finally doing something about the parking, and more.

“Our parking lot is less than ideal, let’s just say. Parking’s always been an issue at the Farmer’s Market, and our waterfront interface could use some sprucing up. Our building infrastructure is aging. About five or six years ago, we began the process of talking with our membership and the community about what we might need – a winterized facility for a year-round market, a few more vendor spaces. We had a list of pavilion needs, and of course the parking lot (…) We’re exploring ideas for multi-modal access, safer pedestrian interface with the parking lot, better parking spaces, we’re looking at ideas from grass pavers to traditional pavement, maybe combinations in different spots. We’re looking forward to it,” said Burkett.

Initial plans are so far fairly vague, as one might expect this early in the process. The push for a winterized building, or portion of the new pavilion, springs from a desire to service the community all year long. While the number of vendors would ostensibly be fewer in the winter, some have expressed an interest in an indoor, climate-controlled winter market—perhaps akin to the Winter Farmer’s Market that has been periodically held in the Space @ GreenStar facility.

The indoor space would also provide office space for the Ithaca Farmer’s Markets administrative offices, meeting rooms, prep space, storage and a community kitchen available to vendors. Burkett added that the IFM Executive Board is working on forming a 501c3 “Friends of the Market” to expand the market’s mission into food security, education and business incubation. “Having a space for that to happen on a daily basis and use the market location more regularly than just the weekend is another reason for a new facility.”

Another factor, as Burkett touched on, is that the pavilion itself is serviceable but likely to need serious work in the near-future. It is an open-air wooden structure that’s been exposed to the elements for well over 30 years at this point. A new space would be comparable, if perhaps slightly larger, with 95-100 rentable vendor stalls versus the current 88.

A lot can change in 30+ years, and the area around the Ithaca Farmer’s Market is a clear example of that—underway or in the works are the City Harbor, Cayuga Park (Carpenter Park) and Arnot-DOT projects, which will add hundreds of housing units, medical office space, retail, and enhanced waterfront facilities to the neighborhood surrounding the market over the next few years. All those new residents and workers and shoppers are something Burkett and the IFM board would like to leverage to help support market vendors.

“It’s been a good time (to do this) for a while. There’s a lot of development underway by the waterfront, there are state funds available for the waterfront revitalization programs, so we can access some of those funds for the project in multiple phases. These projects all connect to the Waterfront Trail. That’s great for revitalizing the neighboring area,” said Burkett.

To assist in the planning for the reconstructed market space are Whitham Planning and Design, as both landscape architects and to help guide the project through the public engagement and entitlements process as they have so many other local projects, and a Brooklyn-based architecture firm, nARCHITECTS. Being as well-loved as it is, anything that results in a significant change to the physical presence of the market is going to cause some apprehension. Burkett’s aware of that.

“We’re an iconic location and destination, people have their weddings at the Market, they meet new friends there. We’re at the heart of Ithaca in that way. I think whatever design we come up with, and I hope it’s something that will work, it needs to continue being that iconic place and bring it to the next level. It’s a tough process for any architect to go through, but nARCHITECTS is highly regarded. If anybody can do it, it’ll be them, they see that opportunity to create something iconic that still captures the rustic feel of the Farmer’s Market,” he said.

As part of that process to coming up with a reconstruction of the market that people are comfortable with, there will be an extensive public outreach process, with multiple public meetings, both on Zoom and in-person so long as the COVID situation continues to recede. The first step is a survey soliciting public feedback in what they want to see and would like to see addressed as the new plans are fleshed out. You can find a link to that 10-15 minute survey by clicking here.

Burkett hopes to have the initial plans submitted to the city by the end of the year, though it’ll take a while to build out, as it’s dependent on multiple state grants, the first of which has already been awarded, though yet to be disbursed. “2020 threw a monkey wrench at us and at the state so that’s slowing things down a little bit.”

“We’re in the process and hope to apply for the next round of LWRP (Local Waterfront Revitalization Program) funding for the parking lot portion. It depends on if we phase things rather than group them together, but if we phase, we would be awarded the grant in December, so 2023 for the parking lot, 2024 for waterfront improvements, and 2025-26 for the pavilion. If we did it in three phases, that’s how it would roll out. It’s a multiyear project.”

More information about public outreach, including the kickoff meeting on June 27, can be found in the press release below, as well as contact information for inquiries from the public. Burkett wants to clear that the more the community makes its voice heard as the market is reconstructed, the better he and the board believe the rebuilt market will be.

We’re releasing a public survey, for input for the public and from our members. We’re still formulating our outreach plan, but there will be public meetings, Zoom and perhaps in-person as we open up. There will be more opportunities coming up.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.