There was a time when travelers who disembarked from the train depot in Newark would find the hustle and bustle of commerce and the pulse of urban community life buzzing through the city that serves as the Licking County seat.
“People would get off the train and look straight at the courthouse,” said Bryn Bird, co-owner and operator of Bird’s Haven Farms in Granville, “and right there in front of them would be an open market (with fresh vegetables and produce).”
While the train depot has long since ceased welcoming passengers, two things have remained on the south end of this city’s downtown plaza. The county courthouse still welcomes visitors and now, thanks to a multi-million-dollar revitalization project, a permanent, open-air farmers market exists in the heart of the city’s downtown.
Canal Market District at 36 East Canal St. began welcoming visitors in June, with more than 65 vendors working in a rotation from 4-7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays in its inaugural year. The open-air market is the crowning jewel of an overall downtown renovation that includes infrastructure improvements, restrooms and other structures and pathways that are helping bring the area back to life. Revitalizing this plaza is in many ways bringing it back to its original purpose—making it a hub of activity—for whole new generations to appreciate for years to come.
Bird, who serves as the director of Canal Market District, said the vision began to take shape in the early 1980s when J. Gilbert Reese, trustee of the Thomas J. Evans Foundation, started talking to local leaders about acquiring the downtown property where the waters of the Erie Canal once flowed.
After building a consensus over many years in collaboration with the city of Newark, Licking County government, commissioners, local business owners, other nonprofit organizations and county residents who shared his vision, plans were announced in May 2014 to begin the project.
But what has been established is much more than a tourist attraction and a place to buy food. Bird said the district is set to “bridge the rural-urban divide in Licking County. The permanent space provides needed infrastructure and support for local agricultural producers and makes local food a centerpiece in our county seat.”
Providing fresh, local meats and produce to the area’s residents who are food insecure is a significant part of the development as well, Bird said.
“We are the first market in Licking County to accept SNAP, WIC and EBT,” she said, referring to government food assistance programs for qualifying low-income individuals. EBT is a debit card that is used in connection with those programs.
Several community partners, including the Ohio and Licking County Farm Bureaus and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, have also provided financial assistance and technical support. The Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation awarded Canal Market District a $3,000 grant in 2015.
But it’s the interested vendors, many local but some coming from as far away as Paris, Ohio, who have bought into the project. They are excited about having a place to sell the fruits of their labors and let those who buy their honey, corn, meats, eggs, etc. know exactly where their food comes from.
That’s important to Autumn Williams, who co-owns Restoration Farms with her husband, Casey. The couple is “kinda new” to farming. Williams said she and her husband began researching food production about five years ago and her interest in the process came from wanting to know where her own family’s food was sourced.
“Not enough people are thinking about it on that level,” she said. “(With Canal Market District), local people will be able to know where their food is coming from and keep that conversation open and be able to choose a local option, find a local source.”
The market itself was appealing for her business because of the convenient location and the ability to have a dedicated space to sell her product, including vegetables and honey.
“This is a great thing for the community and great for the city of Newark,” she said.
Bird said having a farmers market during the weeknights is a way to capture those who work in downtown Newark and help build community with local food at the center of it all. It also frees up vendors who may have other farmers market commitments on the weekends and in other communities.
One of those other communities with a new market located not far from Licking County is Keller Market House in Lancaster, in Fairfield County. That market, which was also the beneficiary of a $3,000 grant from the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, opened with 10 vendors in May, according to Market Director Brad Grywalski. The market space, at 134 S. Columbus St., plans to eventually add a communal commercial kitchen and a cafe.
Bird noted that some of the vendors between both markets will overlap but said that is a good thing. “We want to create a strong, regional (farmers market) community.”
Market-goers were entertained by various music talents during the dedication event.