Vendors resistant to potential change for St. Louis' Soulard Market

Monday, July 4, 2011 | 4:04 p.m. CDT; updated 5:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 4, 2011

ST. LOUIS — The popular Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis could be in for some changes, and not everybody is happy about it.

The city of St. Louis runs the 232-year-old market, located about halfway between Busch Stadium and the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that city officials are sensing an opportunity to modernize the market, where vendors offer a variety of items, such as pineapples, blueberries, chicken feet and gold chains.

Not everyone believes change is good. Many customers and vendors worry that a newly sanitized Soulard might cleanse it of its gritty old soul.

"People come because they like the prices, and they like the atmosphere," said Rosina Inserra, whose family has been selling produce at Soulard for more than 100 years. "If they want to change that, then I don't know what to think."

Earlier this year, the city convened a steering committee and hired a consulting firm to conduct a $250,000 survey to find how to best improve the St. Louis institution and make it more current and competitive.

The number of farmers markets nationally has more than doubled over the last decade, coinciding with a rising demand for locally grown and produced food.

"There's a proliferation of farmers markets," said Gary Bess, director of the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry, which took over management of the market in 2008. "There's also competition from supermarkets and big-box stores.

Few Soulard vendors actually grow what they sell. The Post-Dispatch said most of the produce vendors get their wares from nearby Produce Row, a downtown wholesale market that sells food products from around the world.

"There were hundreds of farmers there when I was a kid," said Lenard Chartand, one of the farmers who sells at Soulard. "I'm the only one left."

Some say the market should urge more farmers to get into the mix. However, that has many vendors worried that new sellers could drive them from their turf and scare away customers who rely on the market but can't afford the higher prices that small-scale producers typically command.

Vendors say they would welcome other improvements, like more parking, but worry that any reconfiguration of the market could change dynamics that have fallen into place over decades.

The city has hinted at dramatic changes in the past. In 1999, a plan funded by the Danforth Foundation called for $12 million in improvements. Some of the plan's proposed changes included gutting the market's interior, adding shops and restaurants, and putting the produce vendors outside the main halls.

Vendors banded together and voted against the plan and the foundation withdrew its support.

Now, members of the steering committee say they're approaching the survey and its results with open minds.

"The market has always been a mix, so what's the mix that works for everybody? Are there products we can put in there that can attract more people?" asked Alderwoman Phyllis Young, a steering committee member. "Change is difficult for people, but the future of the market depends on anybody's ability to change and adapt. We're looking at how we build on history."


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Harold Sutton July 4, 2011 | 5:22 p.m.

So, just how big is this place that a $250,000 study could be justified???? There are a number of auction barns in Missouri where locally grown produce is sold to the highest bidder weekly and then trucked of to big cities.

If the place is a bit grimey, sweep out, hose it down, and a fresh coat of paint. More parking would be good.Work with the venders!!! Make slow careful changes.

$250,000!!!!! Sounds like a self-elected comittee.....

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