The Best Weekly Markets in the Southeast
Article by Michael Field
CHATTANOOGA MARKET - CHATTANOOGA, TN
The Chattanooga Market, held every Sunday from April through December, is the largest weekly market in the Tennessee Valley region, attracting an average of 6,000 visitors and more than 300 vendors.
In contrast to the municipally-run Charleston Farmers Market and the public-private partnership that created the non-profit-driven Riverside Arts Market, the Chattanooga Market was started and has continued to grow entirely through the efforts of everyday people striving to make a positive contribution to the community in which they live. The market receives no financial support from either the City of Chattanooga or Hamilton County.
Chris Thomas is the current Executive Director of Public Markets, Inc, a 501(c)(3) that operates public markets throughout Chattanooga. He explains the path the Chattanooga Market traveled: “The market started in 2001 by Nick and Elizabeth Jessen as a for-profit business. They visited markets in other cities, and thought it would be a great innovation for Chattanooga. It didn’t go well; they shifted to a non-profit model (not yet a 501(c) (3)) and tried to make it float for a total of 6 years before calling it a day. I read the article in the paper, reached out and took it over; we formally made it a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, added staff, etc. and grew it to where we are now. 2016 will be the 15th Season of the Market, the 9th of my involvement.”
The market is held at First Tennessee Pavilion, an open-air, 50,000 square-foot, covered pavilion adjacent to Finley Stadium (home of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Football team, the UTC Women’s Soccer team, and the Chattanooga Football Club). Built on the site of the former Rock Tenn plant in Chattanooga’s Southside, the $28.5 million Finley Stadium, funded by almost equal public and private contributions, opened in 1997. Shortly after breaking ground on Finley Stadium, a plan was formalized to use $750,000 to renovate the historic Ross-Meehan Foundry into what is now First Tennessee Pavilion. The pavilion was opened in 2001.
“The Ross Meehan Foundry was an eyesore/dump when Finley Stadium was being constructed, and there was a lot of talk at the time about tearing it down and creating a parking lot,” notes Thomas. “The organization, which is now known as River City Company (non-profit), instead raised some funds from a local foundation and renovated the pavilion into a multi-use facility. The idea of football tailgating and concerts was primarily on their minds; the market wasn’t even a consideration at that point in time. From my perspective, the Market has been a primary catalyst into making the facility popular and attractive to other events and uses. It’s used now more than ever.”
Chattanooga’s Southside is an emerging post-industrial area that is transitioning away from its industrial past and into an attractive, mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood. Live/work loft conversions, attractive green spaces, affordable housing developments, and a compelling mix of restaurants and local businesses are now neighbors with the Chattanooga Market. Thomas agrees that the market has contributed to the area’s growth, “The Southside still has its issues, but 15 years ago [it] was in a section of town you only visited if you were seeking trouble of some sort. I believe the Sunday afternoon Market attracted families which may not otherwise ever visit downtown, and over our period of growth, made it acceptable and even desirable. In the last few years, we’ve had a lot of new businesses buy old buildings and renovate, or even build from scratch. A lot of investment has poured into our area, and it’s now a section of town somewhat popular and growing. We’re definitely not the only reason that has occurred, but I do think we have significantly contributed to that process.”
The success of the Chattanooga Market has led to the creation of Chattanooga WorkSpace, a four-story downtown building that houses several dozen studios that are rented to creative professionals. These types of synergistic offshoots are a recurring theme among successful markets. Public markets serve as living laboratories within the communities they serve, and the organizations that run these markets possess valuable market data that can be used to recognize unmet niches in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The Market is a lot of things to a lot of different groups of people,” notes Thomas. ”But one perspective is that we’re an incubator of sorts for entrepreneurs who are trying out new ideas and growing their startups. Grassroots at its finest. Several years ago, one of the questions we asked our members and vendors is ‘What else do you need to succeed?’ One of the responses was studio space. Many people started out in their spare bedrooms, but over time they came to realize that they needed a professional location to meet clients, separate work from home, have more space to work from, etc. At the same time, risk is still factor and the idea of long-term lease or runaway costs was scary.
“We looked at a variety of options over the next couple of years, until we found the perfect solution. We are able to offer month-to-month leases, an affordable rent structure, and a low risk way for artisans to get out of their spare bedrooms. As a side benefit, we transformed a building, which needed some love, into a vibrant community which sparks new life into a new corner of downtown.”